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Nov. 8, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

There isn’t a bigger compliment for an offensive lineman than being the guy the offense runs over in a big spot.

For Georgia Tech, that’s Shaquille Mason.

Last week, on fourth-and-one at the Virginia six was a prime example. Here’s how head coach Paul Johnson described his instructions to B-Back Synjyn Days:

“It was called ‘Get behind Shaq Mason,’” Johnson said. “I told Synjyn you’re a big boy. Get behind your pads, get behind Shaq and get six inches.’”

The play worked, gaining enough for a first down.

The “Get Behind Shaq Mason” play seems to be just what the doctor — not to mention coach — calls whenever there’s a doubt. And why not? What’s that expression about if it ain’t broke? Of course, even if it is broke, running behind Mason can fix things.

Mason said he didn’t know about the specific instruction against Virginia but is aware of the trend and was fully aware that the team was running over him on Saturday against NC State, in their 56-23 victory at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Quarterback Tim Byerly thought nothing of going over Shaq — twice. That’s something Shaq is certainly okay with. Both plays resulted in touchdowns, which he also is okay with.

“It’s a great feeling to know my coaches and my teammates have that kind of trust in me that I’m going to clear the path for them to get in,” said Mason, who completed his team-high 34th consecutive start. “So it’s always a great feeling knowing they’re running behind me.”

Against the Wolfpack, they even ran around him, as he and right tackle Errin Joe ran the counter to perfection, allowing quarterback Justin Thomas to go the final 16 yards for a score on the Jackets’ opening drive and running it frequently throughout the game, on Tech’s way to 479 rushing yards.

“It’s been in the arsenal,” Mason said. “We tried to catch them with a counter because we knew they would be susceptible to it. It worked so we just stayed with our game plan.”

Mason has been an important part of the game plan for the last 34 games, since making his first start for injured All-America senior Omoregie Uzzi in the 2011 Sun Bowl against Utah.

“That was a big experience,” Mason recalled. “I was playing against Star Lotulelei. I knew that was going to be a big match-up for me and I was looking forward to it.”

Mason stays in touch with Uzzi and has followed in his footsteps in being named to the Outland Trophy Watch List this year.

“The recognition is nice, but I’m just going out there trying to focus on doing everything I can to be a good captain and great teammate,” said Mason. “All those things fall in place if I keep up the level of play I am so far.”

His confidence is a long way from where he began.

“My freshman year coming in I was all over the place, like, ‘How am I going to learn this stuff?’’” he recalled, with a laugh. “But I got into my book, studied film and now I know it like the back of my hand.”

Georgia Tech offensive line coach Mike Sewak has seen Mason share his knowledge and become a teacher in the film room not only in preparing himself but his teammates for games.

“I think one thing is Shaq gives them the chance to see how you’re supposed to play the game because he has some pretty good blocks in every game,” said Sewak. “He’ll show them back-angles and scoops. I can show them, ‘This is the proper technique’ and he’s done a good job with that for us.

“I’ll ask him a lot of times, ‘What does he see?’ because I’ll say something the way I know it has to be said, kind of methodically,” Sewak added. “Sometimes he can say it just by him playing the game. He’ll say, ‘I remember when I played this guy, he would cheat like this,’ or ‘I remember this guy would do like this.’ So he’s played against these guys that he’s faced the last couple of games, he’s faced them for the last three years.”

He’s done an equally good job driving himself and the team in practice.

“Shaq’s driven himself. He wants to be the best he can be,” Sewak said. “He has a little chip on his shoulder because he doesn’t have the same height that everybody else wants him to have (at 6-1, 300, he’s the smallest offensive lineman). So he has to work harder. He’s done a good job of leading from the front of the line. He leads all the sprints, he tries to win every race, he tries to win every drill, he asks everybody to go full-speed, he tries to get better so when the game comes on Saturday it comes easy to him.”

The ease with which Georgia Tech has run the ball the last three games — the 479 vs. NC State was the second time in three weeks the Yellow Jackets ran for better than 460 yards on the ground — is a tribute to how Mason’s leadership and hard work has rubbed off on his teammates, and paid off, with his peers on the O-Line.

“He’s somebody who’s always been really gifted, but especially this season he’s really stepped to the plate leadership-wise,” said starting left guard Trey Braun.

“He’s always been the young guy. We had the group with Uzzi. He was the youngest starter and then last year’s group they had three seniors who were older than him. Now he’s really stepped into that spot of maturity very well. He’s integral helping these young guys, Chris [Griffin] and Shamire [Devine] and even the older guys. He’s a real good anchor for our group.”

In addition to the pride he takes in his play, Mason has a soft spot for running backs.

“I was actually a running back when I first started out at age six and I kind of blew up from there,” he recalled. “So I started playing offensive line, defensive line. But I enjoyed my running back days.”

He feels he has neither outgrown his desire to carry the ball nor his ability to do so.

“I STILL think I’m a running back. I’m still not letting that dream go,” he said, with a laugh. “I live for a play like [Ray] Beno got a couple of years back because I feel I might could score on a play like that. So I’m hoping Coach calls me one.”

Sewak says Mason shouldn’t hold his breath.

“Hopefully it’s not his man that jarred it loose,” kidded Sewak.

While the dream of running the ball doesn’t appear realistic, the one of going out a winner still is. That dream continues next Saturday, when the Jackets host Clemson in their ACC finale.

“I’m going to be very excited going out there and playing against Clemson,” Mason said, moments after having beaten State. “I definitely think we can go out there and have the same success that we’ve been having. Just prepare hard during the week and go out there and execute. One more game at Bobby Dodd. I’m looking forward to capping this off in a winning way. “

His teammates are completely on board with sending Mason out a winner.

“100 percent yes,” said Braun. “Shaq deserves that and much more. It’s definitely important for us as a group to give him a win.”

Mason expects to hear from Uzzi during game week and may also hear from another big supporter — and I do mean big.

Shaquille O’Neal is in Mason’s corner as well as on his contacts list. They met on a pre-arranged trip to the TNT studios last year with then QB Vad Lee and he and O’Neal have remained tight.

“We went over there and that was a fun time. I got his number. To this day we still keep in touch,” Mason said of O’Neal. “The most recent advice he gave me was it’s my senior season and he was like, ‘Just keep going and try to put your mom in that big house.’ That’s basically all he said.”

Unlike O’Neal, Mason doesn’t have a nickname. He’s fine simply being called whenever the Yellow Jackets need a yard.

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