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August 22, 2012

Huge role for Mason

Senior offensive lineman Miles Mason has been a member of the Utah football team for 368 days, joining the team on August 18, 2011 after transferring from El Camino Junior College (Calif.).

With immediate needs along the offensive line, Mason's last-minute arrival in 2011 was something like Utah's last, best hope, given the fact that no one had stepped up to solidify the starting left guard position.

Making the transition from junior college to the next level is always difficult, at any position, much less on the offensive line. Many junior college transfers require a full year in the program to become acclimated and familiar with the offense.

Quick study that he is, Mason catapulted himself into the starting role in less than a month, and even more impressively, did so without the benefit of participating in fall camp.

Educated football fans realize the enormity of Mason's rare and impressive feat, but Mason largely went under the radar without the true appreciation of what he had actually done, and meant to the Utah football team in 2011.

While the season didn't pan out the way most expected, without Mason's immediate, solid play which helped to stabilize an offensive line that was regularly decimated by injury and in a constant state of flux, the Utes' 8-5 season probably doesn't happen.

In 2012, Mason finds himself in a similar position as the Utes have scrambled to find candidates to fill vacancies on both ends of the line left by all-conference caliber John Cullen and Tony Bergstrom. Similar to 2011, the embattled offensive line lacks depth particularly on the outside, and injuries have yet again played spoiler to the Utes' plans.

Junior college offensive lineman Marc Pouvave was a highly touted recruit that was brought in to contribute immediately at left tackle, and the hope was that someone already in the program might step up to fill the other starting role. Before stepping foot on the field, Pouvave suffered a season-ending injury, dealing the Utes a huge blow.

In response, the versatile Mason was bumped to the outside from left guard to right tackle. Developments in camp saw that role shift once again, as Mason now finds himself at the key left tackle spot, where he's likely found a home for the season.

Just as the Utes felt confident that they'd found their man to fill the key role, Mason himself was injured early in fall camp in what would be another setback for an offensive line already facing an uphill battle.

Mason will start on August 30 against Northern Colorado at left tackle, making him officially a two-year starter while having notched exactly one week of fall camp in total. The fact is stupefying, and considering the enormity of the roles he's played, and will continue to play lends the situation even more credibility.

Given the climate and circumstances of Mason's whirlwind time at Utah, he's not even phased by the obstacles he's already overcome, his meaning to his team, and just how much that will become more and more apparent as the season rolls along.

"It's night and day, the difference between having a year in the program. Last year, I had to focus on just my assignments, only what I had to do. That's not a complete lineman," Mason observed. "This year I know my assignments, and what everyone else is doing and that's how you get that mix that you want on the line. I'm much more confident."

"Everything happened so fast, that I didn't really have time to think about anything, except getting ready to play and learning my assignments," Mason said of his baptism by fire in his short time at Utah. "There was so much to learn and do, and that took all my focus. I never thought about it."

Having just settled into the left guard position, Mason proved adept at handling change once again, as he switched to left tackle late in the 2011 in order to accommodate yet another offensive line injury, and performed admirably. Though a shift in gears from the interior, the transition was fairly smooth, considering that he played tackle in junior college.

Finding a versatile athlete capable of jumping from guard to tackle, on both sides of the line isn't an everyday occurrence, and the Utes are fortunate to have secured his service.

The easy-going big man, who started playing football later than most DI players, credits his lack of familiarity or experience with the game for his success and adaptability, ironically.

"Basically just that I haven't been playing [football] for that long, basically everything I'm learning is new. When you're new at something, you don't have time to pick up all the tidbits or develop habits. You don't have it down fully," Mason said. "You're just learning on the go, and so that makes it easier to kind of take on something new. You don't have to un-learn anything."

Mason's stabilizing presence was apparent Monday after his return from injury, along with that of fellow starter Sam Brenner. Starters intact, the Ute offensive line was solid, even confident in practice, and it seemed to give quarterback Jordan Wynn a heightened sense of confidence himself, turning in one of his best practices to date.

Mason, for one, isn't surprised, citing the fact that this starting unit has been in the trenches together before as they enjoyed the benefit of spring camp together, as well as mix-and-match combinations in game situations last season.

"This group has been together before. We've been in different places on the line sometimes, but that helps us," offered the thoughtful Mason. "We've been through this together, and so when or if someone goes down, we've kind of already been through it, so it's less disruptive."

Facing questions and adversity, and perhaps, being questioned as a collective whole by many, and through that, this group is bonded both on, and off the field. Because of that, Mason sees a lot of strengths in his group.

"I like the communication we have on the line, first and foremost. There's a lot of familiarity with this group," Mason said. "Some things like technique and other stuff, you can learn or develop but the communication has to be there and it isn't something you can make happen."


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