- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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He got his first career start in the Aggies' most anticipated game of 2013, the Sept. 14 clash against Alabama. He appeared in all 13 games last season and made another start in the Aggies' Chick-Fil-A Bowl game win over Duke.
Most incoming recruits relish the chance at early playing time, but for the ESPN 300 prospect out of Dallas Jesuit, the excitement was also met with a dose of reality.
"To be honest with you, it was overwhelming at times," Mastrogiovanni said. "To think that a year [before] I was playing in front of 2,000 people in a high school football game, that's just one of those things where you have to man up and take care of your responsibilities and do the best you can."
What was overwhelming about it? In a word, everything.
"Really, every aspect of the game," he said. "The players, the calls, just looking up in the stands and seeing 100,000 people, that's something not many people get to experience. As an 18-year-old kid looking up, it's something that not a lot of people get to experience."
In the bowl game against Duke, Mastrogiovanni started at middle linebacker in place of the suspended Darian Claiborne, who served as the starter for most of the season. Linebackers coach Mark Hagen recalls the difficult start the defense had across the board against the Blue Devils, as the Aggies surrendered 38 first-half points while a handful of glossy-eyed freshmen, Mastrogiovanni included, tried to figure things out.
"It was a disaster from the opening kickoff in the bowl game," Hagen said. "Nothing went right. I think like most of our guys they were questioning themselves in the locker room and it was just a matter of going out there and getting a stop and I think you saw the confidence start to come back a little bit. It was a playing time issue really as much as anything [for Mastrogiovanni], just not having a ton of [first-team] reps."
But as the Aggies regrouped in the locker room, Mastrogiovanni spoke up and the defense collected itself. The unit allowed only 10 points in the second half as the team completed its come-from-behind effort to steal a 52-48 win.
"At halftime I went in and was pretty frustrated with my performance and the rest of the defense's," Mastrogiovanni said. "I tried to take over as the leader at that point and I said 'Turn the page. Don't even think about it.' That's what Johnny [Manizel] was saying too. I really think we went out there and bought in on what the coaches and players were preaching in the locker room. I think you can see on tape that we were a lot more physical and we trusted each other so it paid off."
The Aggies are hoping the instinct the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker showed that night carries over into this season, because he figures to be Texas A&M's starting middle linebacker. Mastrogiovanni spent the spring working with the first team. The Aggies are looking for improved play -- and leadership.
"I think we lacked a lot of it last year," coach Kevin Sumlin said of the defensive leadership. "We need a guy who's going to step up and talk and make sure we know everything and that we play with some confidence. I think that whole year has given him some confidence and some credibility among his teammates. It's one thing for you to be confident, but what about the guys around you? Mastro has spoken up."
Spring football, which wrapped up for the Aggies on Saturday, was productive for Mastrogiovanni. He became much more comfortable in his role as the middle linebacker and showed the qualities the coaching staff seeks.
"I just think you see a totally different person out there," Hagen said. "Much more comfortable, he's taking charge, he's getting our guys lined up which is over half the battle on defense."
The coaches want him to continue to progress, but so far he has given them reason for optimism. The one thing Sumlin wants him to work on is, of all things, his voice, so his teammates can hear him.
"I give him a hard time because I tell him to put some bass in his voice," Sumlin said with a smile. "I keep forgetting he's a freshman. He has played a bunch of football here. 'Yell from the diaphragm, act like a middle linebacker, put some bass in your voice.'"
With Claiborne likely to move to the weakside linebacker position and the Aggies mulling over a number of options for strongside linebacker, Mastrogiovanni's play is key. Texas A&M is looking to improve a defense that was last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories and struggled mightily against the run. It also didn't deal with offensive wrinkles well, something that having an experienced middle linebacker with the leadership qualities coaches are looking for will help improve.
Mastrogiovanni doesn't want to see another season go by with the Aggies ranking in the bottom 30 nationally defensively, like they did in 2013.
"That's just unacceptable, especially for a program the caliber of Texas A&M," he said. "The fans deserve better and we need to push ourselves. That's not the product we want to put out on the field. We're driven, we're motivated, we just don't want to have another defensive season like that."
8dSam Khan Jr.
9dSam Khan Jr.