Williams recalled another time when Mason won an award from the Tennessee Titans – Gallatin is about 25 miles northeast of Nashville – and was invited to appear on a TV show. Mason went, but he brought his offensive line with him.
“He understands that it’s a team sport, and it’s not just about him,” said Williams, now coaching at Smyrna High, also in the Nashville area.
Even with his team-first attitude, Mason has become increasingly difficult not to single out. Back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, including a career-high 141 yards against Miami, will do that, as will an ability to make plays on his own.
“I’m honored to be the starting back, but, man, it took a lot to do that,” Mason said.
After gaining 659 rushing yards last season as a redshirt freshman B-back – most among Tech running backs – Mason has built on that first step. His 566 rushing yards ranks sixth in the ACC, and he’ll have a chance to make a statement Saturday against Pittsburgh, ranked 14th nationally in total defense.
Pitt has allowed one 100-yard rusher this season. The challenge falls to Mason and his offensive line to become the second.
“They tell me all the time that this week is going to be our week, and I’m holding them to it,” Mason said. “They hold me to do my thing.”
Entering last weekend’s games, Mason had earned a particularly notable honor – Pro Football Focus named Mason its highest-graded running back of the season, ahead of the likes of Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Georgia’s D’Andre Swift.
“‘J.P.’ in general is awesome,” Tech offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. “He’s awesome. I mean, thank God we have him. He makes me look really good.”
One skill particularly sets him apart. His vision to spot holes and would-be tacklers – as well as his agility to sidestep the latter – is, in Patenaude’s words, uncanny.
“His ability to just see the hole and cut, make dudes miss, is unbelievable,” quarterback James Graham said. “I’ll be watching it after I give him the ball – sometimes I’ll just take off and just look back like, ‘Oh, my God, how did he do that?’”
It was on full display on his 22-yard run in overtime against Miami on Oct. 19, a carry that set up his 1-yard touchdown run that proved the game-winner. On a second-and-8 at the Miami 23, Mason took the handoff from Graham at the 26-yard line, then penetrated a hole created by right tackle Jared Southers, right guard Connor Hansen and center William Lay. Hopping to his left, he slipped through a tackle try at the 21, ran through another tackle attempt at the 17 and, even as he was running through the grasp of linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, dodged safety Amari Carter at the 14. He was tackled at the 6, but his momentum carried him to the 1.
“I think my vision came from when I was in high school,” Mason said. “People loaded the box almost every game, so it’s nothing new.”
Mason’s middle-school coach saw the gift even earlier.
“That’s just something that you can’t coach,” said Bobby Beasley, Mason’s coach at Rucker-Stewart Middle School in Gallatin.
What Patenaude has noticed of late with Mason is how he squares his shoulder pads to the goal line and keeps moving.
“And that’s something that (running backs coach Tashard Choice) does a tremendous job with all of those backs of,” Patenaude said. “We never finish going sideways. We finish with our pads going towards the goal line, and that’s how you break tackles.”
Mason said that Choice has particularly helped in teaching footwork and pass protection.
“He’s big on pass protection,” Mason said. “So if you can’t pass protect, you might as well not even come in and play running back because you’re not going to get in the game.”
Mason has retained the same attitude that impressed his high-school coach. On his radio show Monday, coach Geoff Collins said that, during the bye week, “Above the Line” players were required to lift four days while the developmental players lifted five. While excused from the fifth lifting session, held at 5:30 a.m. Friday, Mason went anyway, to participate and encourage his teammates.
“Those kinds of moments are really special as a coach, when one of your best players is also one of your best leaders, and takes advantage of every opportunity to get better and develop,” Collins said. “I think that’s really, really cool.”