Changing Of The Guard
by Matt Walks
Miles Mason wasn't supposed to start for the University of Utah this year.
After arriving just one week before the season opener against Montana State University, the 6-foot-4, 318-pound junior transfer from El Camino College was supposed to sit on the bench, learn the playbook's intricacies and prepare to bolster the Utes' offensive line next year when he was seasoned.
Only, no one told him that.
Four games into the season, Mason has played every offensive snap and has provided much-needed stability to an offensive line stricken with injuries.
"It's one thing to have the ability, it's another thing to be able to digest all the assignments and alignments and techniques," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham told the Deseret News. "He's a natural. He picked up the offense quickly and stepped right in."
But Mason's road to Utah wasn't smoothly paved. He played only one year of high school football — and four of basketball, a sport he gave up as he got bigger — and as a result didn't receive any initial offers.
"At first I thought it would be hard to give up basketball, but it ended up being easy," Mason laughed. "Things have worked out okay."
Okay is an understatement. Coaches at El Camino were impressed enough to see his potential, and Mason saw significant playing time both his freshman and sophomore years.
"I didn't really see my potential as a freshman. Coaches told me from the beginning that I could be great, and I just kept working hard," Mason said.
One coach Mason credits as playing a key role in his development is ECC offensive line coach Gene Engel, who — according to DailyBreeze.com — called Mason the best offensive lineman El Camino had seen since 12-year NFL veteran Derrick Deese, who won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2004.
"I thought that was the biggest compliment I've ever received," Mason said. "I did a little research on (Deese), what kind of player he was, and that meant so much. Coach Engel is the one who turned me into that."
Mason's current offensive line coach Tim Davis also credited Engel.
"(Mason) comes from a program where the offensive line coach is phenomenal and has been coaching for 30 years," Davis told the Deseret News. "He's a hard-line guy and the guys you get out of his program are great."
Mason's hard work at El Camino led to interest from Division I schools like Baylor and SMU. Eventually even USC offered a scholarship. Just when it looked like the Los Angeles native would become a Trojan, USC had to rescind their offer, as Mason had yet to compile the necessary credits to be a mid-year transfer.
After further shopping, Mason chose Utah for a variety of reasons.
"They provided me an opportunity, and I wanted to play in the Pac-12," Mason said, also noting Utah's new offensive coordinator Norm Chow played a role in the decision.
"When I found out (Chow) was going there, I was even more interested, since he's such a well-known coach. Really though, it was after my trip out there. I loved it more than any of the other programs I visited," Mason said.
So far, the Utes have been lucky to have him. Early in the season, linemen Sam Brenner, Isaac Asiata, Tony Bergstrom, John Cullen and Latu Heimuli all missed time due to injury, which allowed Mason the opportunity to step up and showcase his talents while learning to adjust to the Pac-12's faster game speed, which Mason admits has been the biggest challenge since switching from JuCo.
"It's a lot more up-tempo. I've got to keep up with that," Mason said. "The playbook is a lot more detail-specific, and I study my opponents a lot more. Technique-wise, there's more to learn, too. You need to know more moves."
Against Montana State, Mason played left tackle, and as Cullen and other linemen have returned from injuries, Mason has slid over to the left guard spot, a position he says he has no plans to relinquish.
"Miles has done a great job. He's real good about paying attention," Davis told the Deseret News. "He wants to be a good offensive lineman."
"I've got to keep getting better every day," Mason said. "I thought I've done pretty well so far coming in from where I was, but I've got to keep getting better."
The Utes are 2-2 and host the Arizona State Sun Devils Saturday.
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