ATHENS, Ga. – At time two years ago, Hutson Mason was not sure when he might finally get a chance to play, much less where.
Stuck behind Aaron Murray –- who this season became the SEC's all-time leading passer -– on Georgia's quarterback depth chart, Mason gave serious thought to transferring simply so he would not spend his entire career as a backup.
“My heart was telling me one thing and my pride was telling me another thing,” Mason said. “My heart wanted to be a Georgia Bulldog, but I knew I just wanted to play and I knew time was running out. It was a very, very tough decision. I don't think I even knew what the right decision was.”
Murray took over Georgia's starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2010, the same season that true freshman Mason became the Bulldogs' No. 2 quarterback. That pecking order held for two seasons.
After his freshman and sophomore seasons, Mason saw the writing on the wall. If he remained at Georgia and in the same class as Murray, he might go his entire college career without ever getting a chance to play. He expressed those concerns to Bulldogs coach Mark Richt and asked Richt to shoot him straight.
“He asked me to treat him as I would my own son. If he were my son, what would I tell him?” Richt recalled. “One of the things I told him was that first of all, there’s really no guarantee that wherever you go is going to be any better of a situation. With having to sit out, you might transfer, sit out, and then while you’re sitting out, some other guy may take off and play his tail off, and then all of the sudden you’re stuck.”
More than that, Richt said, Mason was learning and improving while working alongside Murray and quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. The coaches saw potential in Mason that would be useful once Murray left the lineup, whether by injury, by early entry into the NFL draft after the 2012 season or after Murray completed his full eligibility this fall.
“Learning the game of football and learning everything from defenses to the run game, all of the blocking schemes and protections and route concepts, everything that you have to learn in this system – it’s a lot, and he’s really learning football,” Richt said. “I thought he was getting better as he went.”
So they hatched a plan for Mason to redshirt in 2012, providing a year of class separation between himself and Murray so that Mason would have a chance to win the starting job as a senior next fall.
With Murray's season-ending knee injury, however, that opportunity came two games earlier than expected. Mason is preparing to make his first career start on Saturday against one of Georgia's biggest rivals, Georgia Tech.
Obviously, Murray's absence creates uncertainty entering the Tech game – “he was the most prolific passer in the history of the Southeastern Conference, so I think when you lose a guy like that, it doesn't help your chances,” Richt deadpanned earlier this week – but Mason had earned his coaches' and teammates' confidence long before leading Georgia's offense to four touchdowns and a field goal in five possessions against Kentucky last Saturday.
“I feel like I already know how he'll play, which is going to be very well,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. “Because I know probably everyone on the team will tell you that because of what we see in practice. I know it's different, but you can just tell when a guy's kind of what we [call] a baller, like a gamer, and he's got it.”
Certainly these aren't ideal circumstances for Mason to make his starting debut, first because it came as a result of Murray's injury and second because it's against a Yellow Jackets defense that ranks 17th nationally with 342.6 yards allowed per game.
Mason's unflappable demeanor and capable practice performances gives the Bulldogs confidence and allows them to focus on other issues on offense.
“Hutson executes at the same level that Murray can, being in the system so long,” receiver Chris Conley said. “He just hasn't done it on a game field, I guess, until last Saturday. We're comfortable with him, we're comfortable with it and there's a lot of emphasis that falls on a lot of other people this week because Tech has a very good defense.
“And so we're not really worried about Hutson. There's so many other things that we as an offense have to get better at, and we have to be prepared for this weekend to have success.”
As Bennett and Conley both mentioned, though, what they have seen of Mason is largely limited to practice reps. Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium won't be practice, and it won't be mop-up duty against Appalachian State or in relief of Murray against Kentucky once Georgia had already built a big lead.
Saturday will represent Mason's biggest test to date, and his ability to handle the job is one of Georgia's biggest questions entering this game.
“People ask me what I look for in a quarterback: Is he an accurate passer? Is he a good decision-maker? Can he handle the pressure of the job?” Richt said. “Well, we’re about to find out if he can handle the pressure of the job.”