By Brian Paglia
Marquiste Mason had long grown comfortable to his role as the young one amongst Woodland's starting linebackers. It was that way from the start, from Woodland's first game ever. Those lined up beside him were always older and had spent far more time learning to chase down running backs.
Mason knows that will change this season. After the graduation of four linebackers, including three that earned all-Region honors, Mason is surrounded by seniors and juniors, players of his own peer group.
"I'm finally with my own class," Mason said.
But, Mason's peers don't have the experience in a starting role that the 5-foot-10, 220-pound senior has gained as a three-year starter. They haven't amassed 330 career tackles. They haven't made 31 career starts, including Woodland's first playoff game in school history last season. They haven't seen just about every offense imaginable on the varsity level. Mason has.
With four new starting linebackers, Mason will play a more prominent role on defense, which he embraces and simplifies, saying that he "just has to make sure things get done."
Indeed, Woodland coach Scott Schmitt said Mason's leadership style is less vocal and more by example.
"He's not a vocal guy," Schmitt said, "but he leads by example. He's starting to talk a little more, but he really leads by what he does on the field. ...
Things happen for him and everyone feeds off of him."
Said defensive coordinator Casey Wyre:
"As a leader, he's not necessarily a vocal guy, but he does a good job leading on the field. He's always trying to be the first one to the group, the first one to the drill. You know he's going to give you everything he's got."
Mason's disciplined work ethic is a product of his family's military background. It was while Mason lived in Aberdeen, Md., that he took up football in seventh grade.
Until then, basketball was his favorite sport. But he ran into a little problem.
"I saw that I wasn't getting any taller anymore," Mason said. "So, I had to find a new sport."
Mason found football suited him well.
"I loved it," Mason said. "Get to hit people."
Mason was hitting people then as a fullback, first in Maryland, then at Union Grove Middle School when his family moved to Georgia before his eighth grade year. When Woodland opened in 2007, Mason joined the Wolfpack program.
There was no room for a fullback in Woodland's spread offense, so Mason moved to linebacker. Despite his lack of experience at the position, Mason's athleticism and instincts made him a natural fit.
"He came in as a freshman as a good looking kid," Wyre said. "His football instincts when he got out there for a freshman you don't see very often. ... Some of the fundamental stuff we had to teach him, but a lot of it was his athleticism took over.
That's what helped him progress through the process quicker, because he's got so much athleticism."
Mason progressed quickly.
He had 108 tackles as a freshman, 104 as a sophomore and 118 last season.
With Mason beside all-Region linebackers Dillion Livecche,
Brandon Russell and Emmonds Thompson, the Wolfpack allowed just 10.1 points a game during the regular season (excluding a 75-point outburst by Lowndes) and shut out three opponents.
Schmitt said Woodland's defense should be more versatile this season with greater size on the defense line.
The Wolfpack can deviate from its three-man front to a four-man front with big defensive ends Cashaud Lyons and Adarius Porter.
Whatever formation the Wolfpack chose,
Mason will direct it from his position at strongside linebacker. Coaches have thrust on him the responsibilities to get the play from the sideline, find the strong side of the offense and identify what he sees in the backfield. He is their quarterback.
"He gets everyone aligned and gets everybody where they need to be," Schmitt said.
"He handles that pretty well being in the system now for four years."
With all his tackles and all his experience, Mason has attracted the attention of only a handful of colleges.
Many overlook him because of his height, which Schmitt says is a mistake. Several Football Championshup Subdivision programs such as Georgia Southern and Wofford have shown interest. Mason has no offers, but isn't worried.
Indeed, Woodland needs Mason focused on leading the inexperienced replacements at linebacker to help the Wolfpack build off its best season ever.
"I'm not worried about (recruiting) right now," he said. "I just want to get out there and play. Everything will take care of itself."