HOOVER, Ala. — An injury to Aaron Murray last season gave Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason a taste of the big-time. The injury that never happened, though, ensured Mason would have a full year as an SEC quarterback.
As it became clear Mason would have trouble earning playing time behind Murray, Mason and Georgia coach Mark Richt formulated a plan to keep the Marietta, Ga., native in Athens.
One plank of that was a redshirt year in 2012 so Mason would be able to start his final season once Murray graduated. The redshirt, though, was no sure thing. Mason remained Georgia’s No. 2 quarterback as the Bulldogs won the SEC East. Had Murray gone down anytime before the bowl game, Richt would have burned Mason’s redshirt.
“Even that season was a little bit crazy because at any given time if Murray would have got hurt ... Hutson would have played,” Richt said.
Murray stayed healthy that season, meaning Richt now has the luxury of a fifth-year senior running the offense in 2014. Mason is a rarity, not only that he didn't transfer like many in his shoes would have, but he's also spent five seasons entrenched the same offensive system under Richt and Mike Bobo.
"He's really sacrificed a lot for this team," Richt said. "He's staying because he loves Georgia, and he especially loves his teammates. But he also knew that this season was going to come and he was going to be surrounded by a lot of skill guys — a lot of great backs, receivers, some veteran linemen, a defense that should be matured from a year ago."
Mason isn’t the only quarterback in the Southeast who needed to be patient for his turn. He’s one of three QBs at power programs who bucked a trend. South Carolina and Clemson will join Georgia with a senior under center in 2014.
As Mason waited for Murray to leave, South Carolina senior Dylan Thompson needed three-year starter Connor Shaw to move on before he could take over the job full-time. Clemson senior Cole Stoudt finally gets his shot after backing up three-year starter Tajh Boyd.
Murray and Boyd were their respective school's career leading passers. Shaw was South Carolina's all-time winningest quarterback.
Many quarterbacks in similar situations as Mason, Thompson and Stoudt would have sought a better chance to start at another school. Instead, this trio stuck around and each will play key roles on teams with high aspirations in 2014. Both Georgia and South Carolina have eyes on an SEC championship while Clemson is eager to prove it can be a player on the national stage without Boyd and All-America wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Of Thompson, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he'll need to "pack his college career into one season." The same could be said of any of the three.
Thompson has the most experience, even if it’s all relative.
He’s 3-0 as a starter and helped South Carolina complete a 28-25 win over Fiesta Bowl champion UCF when Shaw was hurt in the first quarter.
But there was also Thompson’s start against Missouri. He went 15-of-27 for 222 yards with an interception as South Carolina fell behind 17-0. Out of desperation, Spurrier turned back to Shaw, who led South Carolina to a 27-24 win in double overtime despite a knee injury.
“I was just forcing the issue a lot,” Thompson said. “I’ve watched that tape I don’t know how many times, just learning to be patient and taking what the defense gives me. That’s what Connor did such a good job of.”
Thompson’s cross-state rival has thrown 118 career passes, but none in a contested game. Stoudt has completed 72.2 percent of his passes, almost all in lopsided games against the likes of South Carolina State, Ball State, Wake Forest and Virginia.
Stoudt had to win the job in spring, aided in part by the dismissal of Chad Kelly and the youth of Deshaun Watson. A top-100 freshman, Watson may be the quarterback of the future, but Clemson felt confident enough in Stoudt to hand him the keys to Chad Morris' offense.
“It's a huge thrill ride constantly,” Stoudt said at Media Day. “There's always something new every single day, and I've had a blast. I've never been more excited in my entire life.”
When Stoudt starts his first career game, he’ll do so against another first-year starter who at least got a taste last season.
The injury to Murray came in the final game of the SEC season, forcing Mason into duty. In his first start, he shook off a lackluster first half to lead a second-half comeback to beat Georgia Tech 41-34 in double overtime.
Where Stoudt inherits an offense run by one of the most dynamic coordinators in the country, Mason takes over an attack flush with skill position talent. Now healthy, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett could form one of the best running back/receiver groups in the SEC.
“Hutson has done a great job,” Conley said. “He’s been a field general out here, a leader. He’s done a great job of getting the team to rally behind him. The offense will be in good hands.”
South Carolina and Clemson hope to be saying the same thing this fall.