Hutson Mason coming into his own as Georgia’s quarterback

Bowl games are meant to serve as a reward for athletes for all the sacrifices and hard work they’ve put into earning millions of dollars for their respective colleges. But don’t expect Hutson Mason to cut up much while the Georgia Bulldogs are here for the Gator Bowl. He has waited far too long for the opportunity to have a meaningful role in one of these games.

“It’s definitely a business trip, first and foremost,” said Mason, a fourth-year junior.

Mason has been Georgia’s “starting-quarterback-in-waiting” for the better part of three years now. Trouble was, he played behind record-setting starter Aaron Murray. In addition to obliterating SEC passing records, Murray also was incredibly gifted at staying on the field. Outside of mop-up time in lopsided victories, he missed only three plays while starting 52 consecutive games.

But that all came to a sudden end Nov. 23. Murray went down with a season-ending knee injury with two minutes remaining in the Kentucky game. That it happened 90 minutes after an emotional pregame send-off on Senior Night made it knife-twisting cruel.

The happy ending to that dark story is Mason, who finished the Kentucky game strong, then overcame a shaky start against rival Georgia Tech to mount a come-from-behind double-overtime victory.

So here is Mason, the undisputed starting quarterback two games earlier than expected, holding court with reporters before a bowl practice. Mason said the extra month of practice and preparation — not to mention all the reps with the No. 1 offense — has served him well.

“Every day that’s gone by I’ve begun to feel more and more comfortable with my new role, my new leadership position, the game plan, stuff like that,” Mason said. “I definitely hope to see a lot of improvement from Game 1 to Game 2.”

Though the sample size is small, there’s not much about which the Bulldogs could complain. In the two games since Murray left the field, Mason has completed 64 percent of his passes (35-of-55) for 488 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

Mason struggled early against the Yellow Jackets, holding the ball too long and moving too slowly through his receiver progressions. But he picked up the pace considerably as that game went along and helped the Bulldogs overcome a 20-point deficit.

“Just the sensation of being the guy and living through it is huge,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, a longtime backup quarterback in college himself. “Some guys have to wait who knows how many games into their career before they can have that type of moment in a game like that. Right off the bat he finds himself in that predicament, and he played well enough to help us win. So I think that was big for him.”

Just as important now is the work Mason is getting as the No. 1 quarterback and the responsibility that comes with that distinction. Mason is the first player on every interview request from media. He’s expected to be the first in every meeting and the last to leave every practice. He’s expected to speak up — and be heard — in the locker room.

“From a confidence standpoint, he’s always had that moxie about him,” senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “But to know he’s going to be the starter in the game, he has to present himself a little differently. He’s always acted like the starter, and now that he actually is, you can definitely see it in him. You can tell he’s preparing that much harder and doing everything that he’s done more, just more intently.”

Of course, Mason has had the ultimate player to emulate in Murray these past four years. With the exception of maybe offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo, no other individual has had a more up-close and personal look at Murray’s secrets to success.

That said, Mason won’t try to be a copycat. He even refuses to move from the seat he’s occupied in the quarterbacks meeting room these past four years to the one Murray always occupied.

“I don’t really try to live up to anything he’s done,” Mason said. “Anything I do I’m doing it the same way I did it all four years here. I’m not trying to be Aaron. I know there’s a lot of expectation from the outside. ‘Hey, he’s got to be this; he’s got to be that.’ But I’m not putting that on myself. I’m a different quarterback. And I just feel like when you put those kinds of expectations on yourself is when you start to really get your game outside of your comfort zone.

“Murray was a heckuva quarterback, but I can’t try to mold my game around him. I’ve got to play the way I play.”

And, so far, that way has proved to be quite adequate. Extrapolated over a full season of 12 games, Mason’s passing yardage as a starter would give him 4,056 yards. The single-season record is 3,893 by Murray in 2012.

“I don’t really care what records I break, I just want to be playing on (Jan. 12) next year,” said Mason, referring to the date of the 2014 national championship game. “That’s the only record I care about.”

Spoken like a seasoned starter.