NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Jason Tarver, said his boss, Derek Mason, “is a smart dude.” And, like most smart dudes, Tarver left high school with a plan for his life.
That plan did not include leaving the West Coast, the only home he had ever known, and becoming the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt. But here he was, on a cool, gray afternoon, looking out the window of the McGugin Center at students scurrying to class at one of the South’s great universities which, by the way, plays college football in the nation’s best conference.
No. This wasn’t in the plan at all.
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A native of Stanford, Calif., Tarver planned to play college football at nearby Santa Clara, where he would earn an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry. Then he would get his Master’s in Biochemistry. Then he would go to medical school.
“I thought I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon,” said Tarver.
But stuff happens. Santa Clara dropped football after Tarver’s freshman season in 1992. So he decided to play at tiny West Valley College in Saratoga. Then he got hurt and had to stop playing. So while he finished up his Bachelor’s Degree at Santa Clara, Tarver went back to West Valley to try coaching. He was just curious.
He was immediately hooked.
“I fell in love with it,” said Tarver. “You can’t replicate what it is like when you get a group of people pulling in the same direction and trying to achieve a common goal.”
He was a graduate assistant coach at UCLA for three years where he finished up his Master’s Degree and began work on his Ph.D. He taught undergraduate classes and received an award for distinguished teaching from the UCLA Chemistry department
“I was teaching future medical students,” said Tarver. “A couple of my students are brain surgeons now. Trust me, you want them to be brain surgeons.”
But medical school was going to have to wait a little while longer because then Tarver got an interview to be a quality control assistant for the San Francisco 49ers. Steve Mariucci was the head coach. Legendary coach Bill Walsh was still vice-president and general manager of the 49ers and was part of the interview.
Walsh took one look at Tarver’s resume.
“He said ‘What in the heck do you want to do this (coaching) for?” said Tarver. “It was obvious that he wanted to see how I was going to react. He told me to go to medical school.”
But he didn’t. The 49ers interviewed two quality control candidates that day. One was Tarver. The other was another up-and-coming young coach named Dan Quinn. The 49ers put Tarver on offense and Quinn on defense. Quinn is now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
Tarver still didn’t go to medical school. He spent 10 seasons with the 49ers as a quality control assistant, assistant running backs coach, and outside linebackers coach.
In 2011 Tarver landed a job at Stanford as the co-defensive coordinator. He shared the title with a young coach named Derek Mason. Both men worked for head coach David Shaw, who had just taken over from Jim Harbaugh.
Tarver and Mason hit it off immediately.
“It was almost like we didn’t have to talk,” said Mason. “We both knew what the other guy was thinking. We come from totally different backgrounds but we just worked well together.”
The partnership only lasted one season, when Stanford went 11-2 and finished No. 7 in the nation. Tarver got an offer he couldn’t refuse and became the defensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders. Mason stayed at Stanford two more seasons and then became head coach at Vanderbilt in 2014.
Vanderbilt went 3-9 (0-8 SEC) in Mason’s first season as head coach in 2014 prompting Mason to fire his defensive coordinator. Mason served as his own defensive coordinator for the next three seasons.
After finishing No. 5 and No. 6 in the SEC in scoring defense in 2015 and 2016, Vanderbilt dropped to No. 11 (31.6 ppg) in 2017. The Commodores were 12th in rushing defense (198.50 ypg) and gave up more rushing touchdowns (30) than any team in the conference.
But here was the kicker: In 12 games last season Vanderbilt forced only nine turnovers (2 fumble recoveries, 7 interceptions), which tied for next-to-last among the 130 FBS schools. The result was a 5-7 (1-7 SEC) record.
Mason knew he needed help.
“I was having to wear too many hats,” said Mason. “I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing and give us a chance to complete. I felt that my program needed more from me. They needed me to be a CEO.”
In short, Mason needed to hire a defensive coordinator. He knew who to call.
Tarver had lasted three seasons (2012-2014) as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator but left with the rest of the staff when head coach Dennis Allen was fired. He went back to the 49ers as a senior defensive assistant. Mason was able to convince Tarver to leave the NFL and come to Nashville.
“The bottom line is that I wasn’t going to turn this defense over to just anybody,” said Mason. “We will work on this defense together like we use to. We know what the formula is to be competitive.”
Tarver inherits a defense that lost seven starters, including the Commodores’ best linebacker in Oren Burks (82 tackles). And Vanderbilt has a schedule that includes Notre Dame (10-3 last season), South Carolina (9-4) and Georgia (13-2) in the first six games. It is going to be hard for Vanderbilt to get back to a bowl game.
Of course, Tarver has a plan to improve the Vanderbilt defense. It has two components:
“Attack the ball. Everything we do is designed to get the ball for the offense.”
“All gas. No breaks. That’s it. That’s how I see it.”
And that’s the plan.