JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Even after he led a dramatic comeback over a rival in his first career start, Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason didn't quite feel like he was the firm leader of the Bulldogs' offense. That was still Aaron Murray, who threw for 13,166 yards and 121 touchdowns in his four years as Georgia's starter but tore the ACL in a knee toward the end of the season.
But as Murray turned his focus toward rehabbing the knee and preparing for the NFL draft, he wasn't around practice much. Mason became the alpha Dawg in the huddle. Surrounded by reporters Friday before Georgia's Gator Bowl practice at Jacksonville University, he comfortably held court for more than 10 minutes. Looks like his team now.
“Every day that's gone by, I feel more and more comfortable with my new role, my new leadership position, the game plan, stuff like that,” said the 6-foot-3, 202-pound junior from Marietta, Ga.
Mason's been a study in patience. A midlevel three-star recruit out of high school, Mason beat out more-ballyhooed prospects in 2010 as a true freshman for the right to mop up after Murray got done making a mess of the opposing defense. One of those prospects, Christian LeMay, announced his transfer before the Gator Bowl. Mason even redshirted in 2012, which created one year of room between him and Murray.
When Murray chose to return for his senior year, it reduced Mason's shot at the starting job by 11 games. Mason's first start was at Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs struggled for much of the first half and trailed 20-0 late in the second quarter.
“No points on the board,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “No success on any drive. I know he was feeling (the nerves). He admitted he was feeling it. We were all feeling it.”
A two-minute drive changed Mason's fortunes. He completed four straight passes and ran for 16 yards on another play. He capped the drive with a 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Todd Gurley. In the fourth quarter, he rallied Georgia from a 27-17 deficit and sent the game to overtime tied 27-27. Gurley scored two touchdowns in overtime as the Bulldogs pulled out the win.
“Some guys have to wait who knows how many games into their career to have that defining moment in a game like that,” Richt said. “Right off the bat, he finds himself in that predicament and found a way to play well enough to help us win. That was big for him.”
Mason settled in more as bowl practices progressed. Sophomore offensive tackle John Theus sees the growth.
“He just has that presence in the huddle where he's a leader,” Theus said. “You can hear it in his voice. When he says something, you're going to listen to him. This past month, he's really taken control of it. He has his own little wrinkles in there, and the guys have responded well.”
Mason said it's hard to quantify his increasing comfort level as a leader. “but emotionally and physically, I feel like I'm taking a step forward,” he said.
Part of leading, Mason said, is setting the same example Murray did. Mason studied Murray's leadership style for years, seeing how effective he was at controlling every aspect of preparation.
“A lot of my success and this team's success next year will be credited to him,” Mason said. “I got to sit there and watch how he molded himself into preparing to be great. It's something you want to pass down to the young guys.”
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