While spring football always rouses college football fans from their wintry slumber, Georgia’s practices figure to be particularly compelling when the Dawgs return to the field on March 18.
Running back Todd Gurley, a Heisman Trophy hopeful in 2014, will look to battle back once completely healthy from a nagging ankle injury. Defensively, new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and his assembled staff will be rebuilding a unit that struggled mightily in 2013.
And of course, fans will get an early glimpse at how new special teams coaching assignments impact a phase of the game that was fatally flawed last season.
Even with all these exciting elements, the most intriguing player to watch this spring is actually a guy who’s entering his fifth season with the Bulldogs: senior quarterback Hutson Mason.
Potential and Patience
When Hutson Mason initially committed to the Georgia Bulldogs in December of 2009, Joe Cox was the quarterback in Athens and Aaron Murray was an unknown quantity, redshirting as a freshman.
In 2010, Mason arrived on campus just in time to see Murray emerge as one of the best freshman passers in college football. After that, he spent three years watching Southeastern Conference records fall as Murray racked up yard after yard and touchdown after touchdown.
Yet Mason still managed to make the most of his limited opportunities. His first career pass as a true freshman was a 26-yard scoring strike. Later that year, he connected on all four passing attempts in a midseason win over Vanderbilt.
As a sophomore, Mason continued to demonstrate accuracy and poise when allotted game time. Against Coastal Carolina and New Mexico State he combined to complete 14 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He even took the field late in a lopsided loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
Much to the benefit of the Bulldogs, Mason’s time in Athens has been characterized as much by patience as by potential.
In 2012 he selflessly redshirted rather than transferring and, in doing so, gave himself a year of separation behind Murray. The move highlighted Mason’s commitment to the Georgia program and, as fate would have it, he took over as a full-time starter slightly sooner than planned.
After Murray went down with a torn ACL against Kentucky last season, Mason assumed the reins of Mike Bobo’s prolific attack and never looked back. He kept the Bulldogs ahead against the Wildcats, manufactured an impressive comeback on the road against Georgia Tech and almost brought the Dawgs back from behind against Nebraska in the Gator Bowl.
Potential and patience, the characteristics that have thus far defined Mason’s career in Athens, however, do not equate to success in and of themselves.
And that’s what makes Mason such a compelling player to watch this spring.
Command and Connection
Statistics and comebacks won’t do Mason any good as he moves into the 2014 campaign. To the contrary, two less-tangible qualities need to be added to his resume as he approaches his senior year. This spring, Mason must develop command over the Georgia offense and a connection with his receivers.
In his two starts last season, the Mason-led offense struggled at times. While his comeback against the Yellow Jackets was truly epic, the late game rally merely hid a more glaring problem: Georgia failed to score for the first 29 minutes of the game.
Prior to scoring on their final drive of the first half, the Bulldogs racked up just 56 yards of offense on four drives that ended with three punts and one interception.
Despite a thorough knowledge of the playbook and familiarity with surrounding personnel, Mason failed to show command of the offense. He still seemed—at least in the first half—like a backup quarterback striving to make the most of his time on the field but lacking the fortitude to change the game.
Against Nebraska, Mason’s come-from-behind bid fell to the ground alongside a number of critical dropped balls. To be fair, the majority of these incompletions came on well-thrown passes, several of which hit receivers in their hands. Unfortunately, the accuracy of Mason didn't change the end result.
This spring, he must get comfortable with his many receiving weapons, and they must establish a connection with him.
Obviously, every quarterback does things differently. Mason’s release, while smoother, is slower than that of Murray. He must put in extra reps with his targets, ensuring that everyone is well adjusted with his throwing pace, the speed of the ball and his overall delivery.
Mason will be fun to watch this spring; that much is a given. He’s a highly skilled player who waited patiently for his chance to play with All-American talent in a prolific offensive system. In that regard, he’s already one of the better stories on the team.
Mason’s ability to take the next step, however, will make him this spring’s most intriguing player. Already he’s improved as a passer, advanced in his knowledge of the playbook and emerged as a leader.
As Mark Richt told David Paschall of the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January, “Hutson is a great football player and a great person and a great leader for our team.”
Can Mason establish himself as the best quarterback in the SEC?
If he can make strides in commanding the offense and connecting with receivers, he may be more than a great player. He could be the best quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.
With a host of high-profile starting quarterbacks now departed from the league, Mason could harness the talent around him and make a bid as the best passer in the SEC.
He’ll get started with that lofty calling this spring as he establishes ownership of the offense.