Patience pays for Georgia QB Hutson Mason

Almost every player who doesn’t play right away in college has thoughts of starting over elsewhere. That was the case with Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, too, and he went as far as having the conversation with coach Mark Richt not only once — but twice.

Richt said he didn’t necessarily try to talk Mason out of transferring as much as try to advise him like a son. They agreed the best option was for Mason to remain at UGA. And as of this week both parties are quite pleased that Mason decided to hang around, as the junior is set to start his first game for the Bulldogs in the biggest game of the season — Saturday against Georgia Tech.

“It’s just unique and funny how things work out,” said Hutson, who’s stepping into a starting role nine months early after Aaron Murray suffered a knee injury Saturday. “I still only get 16 games in my career, so it’s not a lot of time to leave a legacy and leave a mark. But I’m very thankful for the opportunity I have now.”

To this point, Mason’s career has been an exercise in patience. Signing with Georgia out of Lassiter High — where he became the state record holder for passing yards in a season — it became very apparent shortly after his arrival in 2010 that Murray was going to be man at quarterback for the Bulldogs.

But Mason continued to prepare and compete as if he had a chance to get on the field. Even though he was relegated to back-up duty those first two seasons, coaches and teammates always raved about how well he performed in practices and scrimmages.

And it showed in his brief appearances in games. Mason’s first pass attempt as a touchdown pass to Logan Gray against Louisiana-LaFayette his freshman season. He completed 57 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions in eight games before this season.

But while he was proving his worth to the Bulldogs, Mason also was proving it to himself. Soon he started to wonder if he made a mistake not signing with Virginia or Mississippi State, or any number of the schools that came forth with scholarship offers toward the end of his senior season in high school — most of them before Georgia.

“I told coach Richt my heart was telling me one thing and my pride was telling me another,” Mason recalled Tuesday. “My heart wanted to be a Georgia Bulldog, but I knew I just wanted to play. And I knew time was running out. So it was a very, very tough decision. I don’t think I even knew what the right decision was. I just had to trust the Lord and go with it.”

Said Richt: “He wasn’t sure what to do. He asked me to treat him as I would my own son. If he were my son, what would I tell him?”

Richt said he told Mason he would support whatever he decided to do, but warned that there was no guarantee he would land in a better situation somewhere else. He said he felt Mason was still learning football at a high level and improving every day. He also said there was a chance Murray would turn pro after his junior season. If that happened, Mason might have two seasons to play.

That’s when Richt floated the possibility of redshirting Mason to get a year of separation between him and Murray, which they ultimately did last year. But, of course, Murray decided to return for his senior season.

“He knew there was a risk that Aaron would stay,” Richt said. “But at least he knew that he’d have his senior year as an opportunity. He even said that nothing is guaranteed to him. I read a little comment of his a week or two ago where he said, ‘There’s no guarantee I’ll be the starter next year’ and he said ‘No one owes me anything.’ So he’s not sitting there thinking that. He’s a great guy, I believe in him, and I think our players do, too.”

Mason went outside for advice as well. One of his primary confidantes these past four years has been former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley. Shockley endured almost the exact scenario playing behind David Greene from 2002-04. The only difference is Shockley was rotated into games on a more regular basis. He took over as the full-time starter the season after Greene was a senior and led the Bulldogs to the SEC championship in 2005.

“D.J. was a real help for me going through these times,” Mason said. “Just a lot of text messages and a lot of calling. I can definitely say he’s been the most influential person during my time here, him and coach Richt.”

Mason gets credit for being a study in perseverance, but he wasn’t as accepting of his role as it might appear now.

“It’s been tough on him,” said receiver Michael Bennett, his roommate. “It’s been real hard sitting behind Aaron watching. He’s been struggling, and it’s been up and down for him really. As bad as I hate to see Aaron go down, it’s an awesome opportunity for (Mason). I know how hard he’s worked. I know how much he’s prepared for it. He’s ready for it.”

And that is what’s being said mostly now, as the transition from Murray to Mason becomes official. The confidence level in Mason is high.

“It’s hard to explain how we’re not really fretting at all about this game coming up,” junior wide receiver Chris Conley said. “Everyone’s actually extremely calm (about Mason’s first start). There’s no difference in the way the offense is preparing, there’s no difference in the plays we’re running. Hutson can execute to the same level that Murray can because he’s been in the system so long. He just hasn’t done it on the field until last Saturday. So we’re comfortable with him.”