ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason sits in a faintly lit meeting room deep inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, the Bulldogs' athletic facility/sports museum, reflecting on the past and focusing on the future.
His eyes show purpose as he discusses the season ahead while mentally gearing up for a late spring practice a couple of hours away.
While the present means more reps, and more rhythm inside offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s offense, Mason can’t help but push his brain full throttle toward the fall.
“When you get one shot, you get one opportunity, you want to make sure that you do everything right,” Mason told ESPN.com in early April. “You want to make sure that you don’t have any regrets because I don’t get four years. I don’t have time to get my feet wet. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to be remembered as a champion.”
Mason wasn’t near the star Murray was coming out of high school and he won’t sniff his college career. He's fully aware, but that didn’t deter him from having a strong spring or setting high 2014 goals.
"I know I have a year left, but it’s hard to realize that, 'Man, you’re the starting quarterback at UGA,'" said Mason, who has 1,324 passing yards and eight touchdowns in his career.
“You gotta grab the bull by the horns, you gotta figure out the problems, you gotta figure out what we’re good at and you gotta win.”
An easily missed, self-described “weak, frail” prospect from Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., Mason said he had only one scholarship offer (Georgia Southern) heading into his senior year after Iowa pulled its offer.
When Mason started winning (12-1) and finished the season with a Georgia state record 4,560 passing yards and 54 touchdowns and Lassiter’s first-ever region championship, Mississippi State and Virginia offered, but he wanted UGA.
Mason’s "real quick release" from his weaker arm only intrigued Bobo the spring before his senior year, but his summer improvements at one of Georgia’s camps ramped up interest, Bobo said. Still, Georgia wasn’t planning on signing a quarterback in its 2010 class.
That changed after Mason’s senior season -- which showed Bobo the moxie, instincts and composure he once saw in former Georgia quarterback David Greene -- earned him a scholarship.
Mason then dealt with a "roller coaster of emotions" while he sat behind Murray. He prepared like the starter, talked like a starter, but wasn’t seeing enough field action. It would have been easier if Mason felt he wasn’t SEC material, but he believed he was more than capable of leading the Dawgs.
He approached coach Mark Richt twice about transferring, once after the 2011 season and a year later, after Murray decided to return for a fifth year.
“I was putting in just as much work that Aaron was, and there was really no reward for it,” Mason said. “That was the hardest part to swallow. You were doing everything, but weren’t really getting to go out there and do what you have fun doing.”
After some soul searching, Mason had one overwhelming feeling, as his heart battled his pride: He was a Georgia boy playing for the state's best football program. He wanted a real UGA legacy.
“My heart was always stuck at UGA, and a lot of times I wanted to get past that and I wanted to tell myself to move on,” he said.
“I honestly believe that was God’s plan. My path was just a little different and funky. ... Everything I’ve been waiting for, every opportunity is here.”
It’s there if Mason can leave spring and evolve. He’s always been considered a leader, but leading summer workouts and getting players to show up was always Murray’s deal. This offense and this team are in his hands.
“It’s on him now, so this summer is going to be very huge for our offensive football team getting ready for next year because we [had] a lot of pieces missing [this spring] and Hutson’s got to be a big part of that,” Bobo said.
The good news for Mason is that he’s never shied away from leadership. Naturally outspoken, Mason was very vocal with teammates this spring. He called guys out, raised his voice. There was no switch to flip, he was just himself.
And who he is ain't bad. Mason isn’t as crisp a passer as Murray, but Bobo said he knows how to beat defenses better at times when it comes to extending plays. His imperfections sometimes give him an advantage when things break down.
We saw glimpses of that when he replaced Murray (ACL injury) late last season, throwing for 808 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions in three games, and during a fine spring game performance (241 yards, one touchdown).
He’ll also have a slew of offensive weapons returning this fall to help, starting with Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and veteran receivers.
“I don’t have to be a Heisman Trophy winner, I just have to figure out how to get these guys the ball and they’ll do the rest,” Mason said.
Getting here has been long, draining, and worth it for Mason. There’s no reason for him to let up now.
“He’s progressed beautifully,” receiver Chris Conley said.
“Once he becomes consistent at realizing that he is the guy and that everyone is behind him, then he’s going to blow some people’s minds because he can make all those throws.”
- Remember Michael Dyer's freshman campaign at Auburn? Remember his unceremonious exit? He's back. Despite being buried on the depth chart, the former SEC tailback had 150 rushing yards and three touchdowns on just 14 carries in the Louisville spring game.
- The Gus Bus is rolling. Gus Malzahn's annual Tiger Trek Tour kicked off in Muscle Shoals, Ala., on Tuesday.
- Nick Saban was on his annual pilgrimage Tuesday as well. Alabama's head coach spoke with reporters on the first stop of his Crimson Caravan tour and updated the injury status of linebacker Reuben Foster and offensive lineman Grant Hill.
- Is the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry in trouble? With a decision on the eight-game vs. nine-game conference schedule looming, Saban seems to think so.
- Who wins the QB competition? Are the young defensive linemen ready to emerge? A look at Florida's burning questions heading into the offseason.
- Georgia coach Mark Richt talks about dropping weight -- both he and his players.
- Kentucky coach Mark Stoops continued his success on the recruiting trail this week, picking up one of his biggest commitments to date.
- Jadeveon Clowney will be among the 30 prospects to attend the NFL draft in New York. For some it could be a long wait in the green room, but I don't suspect it will be for Clowney.
Not so long ago, Penn State was widely known as "Linebacker U."
Under Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions produced a cavalcade of top-notch linebackers -- bone-crushers such as Jack Ham, Greg Buttle, Shane Conlan, Andre Collins, LaVar Arrington and Paul Posluszny, just to name a few -- and many of them went on to have outstanding NFL careers, as well.
Around the same time, perhaps a little earlier, USC was being referred to as "Tailback U" because of Heisman Trophy winners Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen -- not to mention a few other All-American running backs who didn't take home the bronze statue.
That got me to thinking about which colleges are currently the best at producing NFL difference-makers within a specific position group. I looked at draft picks, number of players to start games and number of players to make the Pro Bowl in recent seasons, which helped me compile a short list. It doesn't include the offensive glamour spots -- quarterback, running back and wide receiver -- because aside from Georgia Tech having two of the most freakishly talented wideouts in the league (Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas), not much is there for one school to brag about.
With that said, here are the biggest college pipelines of NFL talent at specific positions. These eight groups stood out to me in this order.
1. Offensive line -- USC Trojans
This might not be the first position group that people associate with USC, but it's the spot where the Trojans are making their biggest impression in the league currently. It starts with All-Pro center Ryan Kalil, but the most noteworthy thing about this crop of USC linemen is the number of successful offensive tackles. Sam Baker, Charles Brown, Winston Justice, Matt Kalil and Tyron Smith each has started at least 12 NFL games at tackle in the past two seasons. That's some serious value.
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Plenty of three-star (and lower) prospects go on to highly successful careers in the SEC.
Below is a stab at the 10 best players in the SEC next season who were ranked as three-star prospects or lower by ESPN coming out of high school. We’ve listed them alphabetically.
Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn, Jr.: We've only seen a glimpse of what Coates is capable of, even though he had seven touchdown catches last season and averaged 21.5 yards per catch. A product of Leroy, Ala., Coates was ranked as the No. 76 receiver nationally. Originally committed to Southern Miss, Coates ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at the Auburn camp, got an offer and switched his commitment to Auburn.
Alvin "Bud" Dupree, DE, Kentucky, Sr.: With 16 career sacks, Dupree is one of the most accomplished pass-rushers returning in the SEC. Coming out of Irwinton, Ga., as a high school senior, he was ranked as the No. 48 tight end nationally and picked Kentucky over Georgia Tech. He wasn’t offered by Georgia.
Trey Flowers, DE, Arkansas, Sr.: Flowers had 13.5 tackles for loss last season, which leads all returning players in the SEC. He was ranked as the No. 108 defensive end nationally as a high school senior in Huntsville, Ala. He was originally committed to Georgia Tech but took a visit to Arkansas on the final weekend and signed with the Hogs.
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn, Sr.: Eight quarterbacks in the Class of 2011 who signed with SEC schools were ranked ahead of Marshall, who was a cornerback at Georgia that first season before running into trouble and getting kicked off the team. He blossomed last season at Auburn in leading the Tigers within an eyelash of a national championship. He has become a more consistent passer this offseason and returns as one of the more dynamic players in the SEC.
Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State, Jr.: Only a two-star prospect in 2011 out of Tunica, Miss., McKinney was ranked as the No. 169 athlete nationally and weighed just 205 pounds coming out of high school. He played quarterback, linebacker and punter for his high school team. Now 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, McKinney has been a tackling machine for the Bulldogs at middle linebacker with more than 170 tackles the past two seasons.
Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State, Jr.: One of the top returning quarterbacks in the league along with Marshall, Prescott is a threat both as a runner and a passer and is poised for a huge season in 2014. A Haughton, La., product, Prescott was ranked as the No. 41 quarterback nationally coming out of high school. LSU offered after he had a big senior season, but Prescott stuck to his guns and enrolled early at Mississippi State that January.
Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss, Sr.: Prewitt led the SEC last season with six interceptions, and his 71 total tackles were second on Ole Miss' team. He was a first-team All-American by the Associated Press after exiting high school in Bay Springs, Miss., as the No. 78 athlete nationally in the 2011 class.
Corey Robinson, OT, South Carolina, Sr.: South Carolina's offensive line should be one of the better ones in the SEC in 2014, and the 6-8, 348-pound Robinson returns as one of the premier left tackles in the league. Coming out of high school in Havelock, N.C., in 2010, he was ranked as the No. 56 offensive guard nationally. Other programs on his list included Duke, East Carolina and North Carolina State.
Braylon Webb, S, Missouri, Sr.: Webb is entering his third season as the Tigers’ starting free safety. He was second on the team in 2013 with 89 total tackles, and he also had three interceptions. He was unranked nationally coming out of Gilmer, Texas, in 2010 and chose Missouri over Houston.
- Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland explains how this year's defense is different than in years past.
- Tre Mason walked away with top honors at Auburn's AUSPY Awards.
- South Carolina assistant coach Everette Sands has a good problem on his hands. He has the enviable task of distributing carries to four talented tailbacks, including Mike Davis.
- Kentucky was already thin at a number of positions, and injuries at receiver have exacerbated the problem heading into the Wildcats' spring game.
- It's that time of year: transfer season. After watching Maty Mauk establish himself as the clear starter, backup quarterback Trent Hosick decided it was time for him to move on.
- Vernon Hargreaves III was as impressive a true freshman as any in the country last season. As a sophomore, the Florida cornerback wants to step up even more and lead.
- Georgia's Ray Drew "will be a factor" on defense next season. Read about that and more in some notes as the Bulldogs head into the offseason.
The USC Trojans, after receiving a commitment from one of the top quarterbacks in the country, Ricky Town, back in January, got a commitment Monday from a player who is expected to protect Town's blind side -- offensive tackle Chuma Edoga.
Edoga, who is the No. 3 offensive tackle and the No. 21 overall player in the ESPN 300, announced his decision on Twitter and confirmed his decision with ESPN.
"I committed to USC. I feel like I can get the best of both worlds by going to USC," Edoga said. "First with football and then with their academics. I have a great relationship with coach [Tee] Martin and coach [Tim] Drevno. They are all pretty cool guys -- real laid back. They really love the game of football and they are focused on what is best for me, they want to make me the best man I can be -- just real genuine guys."
"It was a pretty tough decision," Edoga said. "They are all awesome schools. Anyone would die to go to some of those other schools but I'm pretty solid, I feel like I made a good decision to go to USC."
Teams that turn it over consistently don't win very often, and teams that force turnovers typically find ways to win.
Looking back at the SEC in the last three seasons, it's not surprising that Alabama and LSU lead the way in turnover margin. The Tigers are plus-36 and the Crimson Tide are plus-24 during that span. They've combined to win two of the last three SEC titles and played each other for the national championship in 2011.
Alabama has been especially good at not turning the ball over. The Crimson Tide haven’t turned it over 20 or more times in a season since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. Alabama and LSU are the only teams in the league that haven’t had a 20-turnover season at least once over the last three years. During that three-year span, Alabama has turned it over just 44 times.
By contrast, Ole Miss has turned it over 75 times during the last three seasons, which is the most in the league. Arkansas is right behind the Rebels with 74 turnovers, and the Hogs have forced the fewest turnovers in the SEC since 2011 (47). Ole Miss and Texas A&M are the only SEC teams to turn it over more than 20 times in each of the last three seasons, although Texas A&M was a member of the Big 12 in 2011.
In the last three seasons, South Carolina's defense has led the way when it comes to creating turnovers. The Gamecocks have forced 86 turnovers. LSU is second with 82. The Gamecocks have intercepted an SEC-high 52 passes in the last three seasons. Vanderbilt is second with 48 picks during that span.
Ole Miss has thrown the most interceptions (44) in the last three seasons, just one more than Tennessee (43). Alabama has thrown the fewest picks (18).
Below is the turnover margin for all 14 SEC schools in the last three seasons. Missouri and Texas A&M were in the Big 12 in 2011.
1. LSU: 82 gained, 46 lost -- plus-36
2. Alabama: 68 gained, 44 lost -- plus-24
3. Mississippi State: 78 gained, 55 lost -- plus-23
4. South Carolina: 86 gained, 64 lost -- plus-22
5. Missouri: 77 gained, 57 lost -- plus-20
6. Georgia: 77 gained, 66 lost -- plus-11
7. Vanderbilt: 77 gained, 69 lost -- plus-8
8. Florida: 62 gained, 61 lost -- plus-1
9. Kentucky: 52 gained, 55 lost -- minus-3
10. Tennessee: 60 gained, 64 lost -- minus-4
11. Ole Miss: 67 gained, 75 lost -- minus-8
12. Auburn: 55 gained, 65 lost -- minus-10
13. Texas A&M: 53 gained, 66 lost -- minus-13
14. Arkansas: 47 gained, 74 lost -- minus-27
- Ranking the SEC quarterbacks for 2014: Auburn’s Nick Marshall takes the No. 1 spot.
- Alabama running backs Kenyan Drake and Altee Tenpenny spent Thursday’s practice at the study table, a requirement if either wants to participate in the spring game.
- True freshman quarterback Rafe Peavey is climbing the depth chart at Arkansas in his first spring.
- After Thursday’s practice, the Auburn football team hosted a group of pediatric cancer patients and their families.
- Will Muschamp’s post-spring speaking tour has been part apology for last season and part promise that things will be better for his Florida team in 2014.
- Georgia wrapped up spring practice on Thursday, and the question marks on defense are as abundant as when the Bulldogs started.
- Former Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow opted to transfer earlier this week. His father knows just how painful the decision was to make.
- Missouri spring game storylines: What to watch when the Tigers take the field on Saturday.
- A day after his transfer from Texas A&M was confirmed, former Aggies quarterback Matt Joeckel found a new home at TCU.
- At Tennessee, did any of the quarterbacks emerge from the pack this spring? What impact would the newcomers make? These questions answered and more.
- After a frustrating 2013, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black is embracing his changing role under Lane Kiffin.
- Arkansas' secondary is moving on from last fall's struggles.
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wraps up the Tigers' final scrimmage and previews Saturday's A-Day.
- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. is searching for consistency in 2014.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was pleased with his pro day workout.
- Quarterback Jalen Whitlow decided to transfer from Kentucky after being asked if he had any interest in moving to wide receiver.
- Missouri's trip to the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season cost $1.83 million.
- Former South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton was arrested earlier this month for an alleged dispute with his sister.
- Athlon Sports wonders how many SEC games Texas A&M will win in 2014.
- Running backs and linebackers will be key to Vanderbilt's success this fall.
We’ll see, in time, but give him this: Strong was up front in saying the Longhorns will embrace an up-tempo offense, the same style that has worked, and mostly worked well, for years in the Big 12.
“I want to play fast,” Strong said earlier this month as we talked in a conference room adjacent to his plush new office, the one that belonged to Mack Brown for a decade and a half. “For me, it starts at practice. I just don’t like guys sitting round, not running on and off the field.”
As spring workouts wind down, Texas leads our discussion of scheme changes and tweaks in college football.
Brown had promised a year ago that the Longhorns would, like the majority of their conference peers, move the offense at a faster pace.
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Quarterback Aaron Murray still has some convincing to do after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery in late November.
Even so, Murray believes he alleviated many potential concerns about his health after working out in front of 23 NFL teams at Georgia's pro day Wednesday.
Murray said he felt "no limitations" despite wearing a brace on his left knee. Murray hopes that some scouts will recommend him as a second-round draft pick after his scripted workout that included 54 passes to several receivers on a windy, chilly morning.
"We did a lot of throws on the run, left and right, to demonstrate my ability to cut off my leg and show everyone that I'm healthy," he said. "That way these teams don't have to worry about if they draft me that I'm going to have to sit out or anything like that."
Murray likewise understands that he could be the ninth quarterback taken and could fall into the fourth or fifth round.
But Murray says that NFL teams are impressed with his resume at Georgia -- 52 starts and Southeastern Conference career passing records for yards and touchdowns.
In conversations with former Georgia stars A.J. Green, a Pro Bowl receiver with Cincinnati, and Matthew Stafford, the Detroit Lions' quarterback, Murray has been reassured that NFL teams value a successful career in the SEC.
"Obviously it's not the NFL, but it's the closest thing to it when it comes to college football," Murray said. "That helps us after playing against these top (opponents) week in and week out, gets us ready for the NFL."
Green, among a couple hundred onlookers at the Bulldogs' practice fields, thought his former teammate appeared sharp, particularly given the severity of his injury and how soon he's returned to the field.
Although he didn’t attempt more than 100 throws like Mettenberger did at LSU’s pro day last week, Murray’s battery of agility drills and a wide range of drops, rollouts and throws showed that he should be physically ready to compete when his future team opens rookie camp.
Murray completed 48 of 54 throws with three drops in Wednesday’s passing session, which was directed by quarterback guru and former NFL assistant Terry Shea. Among Shea’s previous pre-draft clients are No. 1 overall picks Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford and No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III.
“I thought it went very well,” Shea said. “In four weeks that we’ve been together, I’ve never seen him favor that knee or anything. So I’m really excited that he’s healthy.”
In fact, Murray is apparently ahead of schedule in his recovery. Trevor Moawad, vice president at the EXOS/Athletes’ Performance facilities where Murray conducted his offseason workouts, said the training staff followed a similar rehab schedule as they did with Bradford, who was also coming off an injury when preparing for the 2010 draft.
“I think he’s ahead of probably where he should be at this time and I think come May 8 after the draft, I think he’s going to be able to show up at a team and be right where he needs to be,” Moawad said.
Murray was the featured attraction at Wednesday’s sparsely attended pro day, which represented a significant change from last year, when the Bulldogs had eight players drafted -- four in the first 85 picks -- and three more who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.
Murray (No. 129) is the only Bulldog listed among ESPN’s top 150 draft prospects, and only he and tight end Arthur Lynch received invitations to the NFL combine. Nonetheless, 15 former Bulldogs worked out Wednesday before the 23 NFL teams that had representatives on hand -- many of whom still harbor hopes of becoming late-round selections or undrafted free agents.
That group included offensive guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, both of whom snapped to the quarterbacks during passing drills, showing off what they hope teams will view as positional versatility.
“I feel like you get to the next level, they want to have a guy who’s a swingman, who can play multiple positions,” said Burnette, rated by ESPN as the draft’s No. 19 guard prospect. “I don’t want to limit myself to guard. I’ve had a little bit of experience playing center, so I tried to focus on my snaps and stuff like that during this time off. I think it was good for me to be able to do that.”
Another player hoping to catch an NFL club’s eye was defensive lineman Garrison Smith, who ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles and added six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Smith is hardly a flashy player, but said scouts who pay close attention to his performances on film will see an NFL-caliber player.
“I can do it all. I can look good in a T-shirt, I can look good in the birthday suit, it don’t matter. But I’m a football player,” joked Smith, rated by ESPN as the No. 34 defensive tackle prospect. “When them pads get on, it gets real serious. In them trenches, ask about me down there. I’ve got a lot of respect down there and I made a lot of plays.
“Look at game film, look at my stats. I had good games against good teams this year. I didn’t have no amazing games against teams that they say were less of opponents. I had good games against Florida, LSU, Tennessee. They’re supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country. Watch the film. That’s all I want people to see: I’m a good player.”
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt agreed with his former player’s assessment, noting that he would not be surprised to see Smith find a way to stick on an NFL roster like the three undrafted Bulldogs -- receiver Marlon Brown and defensive linemen Kwame Geathers and Abry Jones -- did a year ago.
“People will see his film. They’ll see his productivity,” Richt said. “From what I’m hearing, if he doesn’t get drafted, he’s going to get into a camp and get a chance to make it. We had Geathers last year didn’t get drafted and made a team. We had Abry Jones, I don’t think he was drafted [and] he made a team. I’m hoping he gets drafted, but if he doesn’t, he’ll get in camp and I think he’ll find a way to stick.”
- Well and ready, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black has another opportunity to compete for playing time this spring.
- Auburn running back Peyton Barber was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, but he’s not letting that or his ADHD slow him down.
- The Bowden Triangle (Tuscaloosa to Auburn to Tallahassee) owns college football.
- Former Arkansas quarterback A.J. Derby has adjusted well to his new position with the Razorbacks this spring, catching a touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage.
- Now that the spring game is over, the real offseason begins for Florida.
- With more and more up-tempo offenses in college football, new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt wants a leaner, faster defense.
- The quarterback competition at Kentucky is beginning to take shape after the school announced Wednesday that former starter Jalen Whitlow is planning to transfer.
- The new NCAA rule allowing unlimited meals and snacks for college athletes was given a thumbs up by Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who called it common sense.
- Dan Mullen’s job was safe regardless of the outcome against Ole Miss, but a last-second win over an in-state rival certainly made life easier in Starkville.
- Fresh off winning a Super Bowl, former Texas A&M running back Christine Michael recently attended prom with an autistic teen.
Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin