JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Hutson Mason does not lack confidence. He certainly does not lack fire. And if there is a filter between his head and his mouth, no one has located it yet.
But as he replaces one of the best quarterbacks in Georgia history, even Mason might have approached his task tentatively. It showed in his first start and how he carried himself in general.
That has changed this week as Georgia prepares for the Gator Bowl. Maybe it’s the changed location, maybe it was that game a month ago, or maybe it’s just the passage of time.
But Mason now feels like this is his team.
“I do finally now,” Mason said Friday. “It took a little while. It took probably a few weeks till I finally felt like this was my team. But a few practices, and after a game, I felt like this was my team.”
Aaron Murray has not been around the team much the past month, since tearing his ACL against Kentucky. That has been a subtle help, with Mason able to lead the team without the most prolific passer in SEC history standing to the side and watching. Murray and Mason haven’t even had a conversation since the injury, other than a short talk just afterwards.
But the biggest help toward truly making this Mason’s team might have come on the field in Mason’s lone start so far. Trailing 20-0 at Georgia Tech, Mason led the Bulldogs to a comeback win.
“Some guys have to wait who knows how long into their career to have that defining moment,” head coach Mark Richt said. “And (Mason) had it right off the bat.”
Mason’s performance to start that game showed just how tentative he was as he took over from Murray. Mason’s throws didn’t have much zip, the timing wasn’t there with receivers, and the offense wasn’t moving very fast.
Out of necessity, Georgia went to a more up-tempo, pass-heavy offense. It fit Mason much better and was a kick start to him emotionally.
“The biggest thing for Hutson is now being the guy,” Richt said, then drew the distinction. “It’s one thing to be the guy in camp or in practice, but it’s another thing to be playing your rival, away from home, going down 20 and going down 20-to-nothing. No points on the board, no success on any drive. I know he was feeling it. He admitted he was feeling it. We were all feeling it.”
Mason wasn’t alone in leading the comeback. Star tailback Todd Gurley and the resurgent defense were huge, too. Mason, who served as Murray’s top backup for four seasons, simply had to guide a veteran offense that has become used to putting up big yards, and he performed the job ably.
Then after a couple of weeks off, the team returned for bowl practice. By this time Mason began feeling even more comfortable, and not just around his teammates. He stepped into Murray’s role in other ways, such as media interviews and just receiving more attention in general.
“I was a little uneasy kind of taking control of the guys,” Mason said. “I wasn’t used to that. That was always Aaron’s role to talk about this or talk about that. He was always very vocal with the other guys on the team. Really with whatever he wanted to do we got done. So that role has kind of been passed on to me. So I’m just trying to feel what it’s like to be in that role. Like I said, every day that goes by I feel more comfortable with it.”
“He just has that presence in the huddle,” sophomore right tackle John Theus said. “He’s just a leader. You can hear him, and when he says something, you’re going to listen to him. Over this past month he’s really taken control of it. He has his own little wrinkles in there. The guys have responded well. He’s a great leader, and it shows.”
The upcoming bowl gives Mason one more start to gain experience heading into next season. It’s an important start, given that next year’s first two games are against Clemson and South Carolina. There won’t be any Appalachian State or North Texas to warm up against, so Mason is getting his trial very much by fire.
“Emotionally and physically, I feel like every day I’m taking a step forward, to just becoming a better quarterback, a better leader. And to be able to lead this offense more and more,” Mason said. “Even at bowl practice in Athens, and getting here, you finally realize this is your team, and it’s time for you to take over.”