ATHENS -- D.J. Shockley remembers those talks with Hutson Mason, who was going through an angst that was wrenching and familiar. Shockley never told Mason what to do. He just passed on the wisdom of someone who knew exactly what he was going through.
“The similarities were so, so close,” Shockley said. “One of the biggest things I told him was, ‘Once you make the decision, don’t look back. Don’t regret it, don’t second-guess it. You’ve gotta live it, you’ve gotta move on, because that’s the decision you’ve made.’ ”
A short time later, Mason sent Shockley a text message, saying, “Hoping I can finish my career the way you did.”
Everyone around the Georgia football program now hopes that.
Mason has been pointing to this season since the moment he sent Shockley that text in January 2012, revealing that he had decided not to transfer. He would stay, redshirt that season, then be in position to replace Aaron Murray for the 2014 season.
It worked out, and here we are, the fate of Georgia’s offense now resting on Mason’s right arm. As the season has drawn closer, Mason has found himself reflecting often on his decision to stay. Sometime at morning or night or during his prayers, he does some reflecting.
“Just kind of meditate on what I’ve been through, what I want to accomplish,” Mason said. “The legacy that this team and I can leave, as far as doing something so special, as D.J. did.”
Shockley had credibility that nobody else can offer Mason. Shockley sat behind David Greene for three years and dealt publicly and privately with the decision to stay or go. He stayed, and it paid off. His one year as the starter, 2005, was one of the best in program history. Shockley led Georgia to an SEC championship and was named first-team All-SEC after passing for 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
“He can open up to me about the stuff he’s going through,” Shockley said. “Because he knows I have been through it, lived it and came out of it.”
They met at one of Georgia head coach Mark Richt’s annual Quarterback Challenges, where the coach brings in some of his quarterbacks from Florida State and Georgia. Mason found himself gravitating to Shockley, aware of their shared experience. Mason grew up in Marietta a Georgia fan and knew well the Shockley-Greene dynamic.
“I just really enjoyed the side conversation that we had, the encouragement he gave me,” Mason said. “As the years went on and it seemed I was gonna play second fiddle, so to speak, to Aaron, I finally realized that (Shockley’s) time here and my time here were gonna look pretty similar.”
They’ve remained in touch for the past three years, whether it’s via text or when they run into each other on campus. But they had some longer soul-searching conversations as Mason debated whether to transfer.
There are slight differences between their experiences. Shockley got more snaps as Greene’s backup, whereas Mason only played in mop-up duty. But while Shockley’s first-ever start was the season opener of his senior year, Mason got the final two of last season after Murray’s injury
Still, Mason said Shockley’s advice “went a long way” toward his ultimate decision.
“Kind of understanding that it can be done,” Mason said. “You can still accomplish your dreams and your goals even though you face a little adversity. The picture that you had kind of painted coming in as a freshman wasn’t really turning out how you had planned. I think (Shockley’s experience) kind of gave me a lot of encouragement.”
Shockley is bullish on Mason’s chances this season, by the way. He sees two advantages that Mason has entering this season:
The experience at the end of last season. It gave Mason a chance to see game speed and thus a chance to see what he needed to improve in the offseason, rather than, say, finding out Aug. 30 against Clemson on national television.
“There were times that he held onto it a little bit longer, just because he hadn’t seen it,” Shockley said of Mason’s starts against Georgia Tech and Nebraska, when Mason combined for 619 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
At times, Mason looked unsure of himself in the pocket.
“There’s a difference between practice speed and game speed, and he just wasn’t sure,” Shockley said. “So I think having those two games was very critical, and it’s gonna help him.”
Mason and Georgia coaches agree. He also worked on his footwork in the offseason, a direct result of seeing how he did in those two starts.
The talent around him. Richt has also made this point, saying Mason almost can’t help but have a good year with Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, a deep corps of receivers and tight end Jay Rome.
There were good players around Shockley, too, including tailbacks Danny Ware, Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown. The difference is that many of them were moving into bigger roles along with Shockley, while Mason is inheriting a litany of experienced players.
“I think he has more talent around him than I had my last season,” Shockley said. “He has playmakers galore, and that’s the best thing that’s going to help him.”
That SEC title won by Shockley was the last one Georgia has won. Since then Matthew Stafford and Murray have come through and set records, and Murray got to the SEC championship game twice. But that was all.
So Mason has a chance to connect himself to Shockley in another, more triumphant way.
“What D.J. did really inspired me,” Mason said. “A lot of guys get that opportunity to play for four years, and I wouldn’t, and I was all right with that. What I wanted to do, was I really wanted to leave like D.J., because there’s been a lot of QBs here that haven’t won a championship. And that’s how I want to be defined.”
Georgia’s preseason practice began Aug. 1. Just before the first day, Shockley sent Mason a text, saying, “I can’t wait to see you play.”