DENTON – Sophomore quarterback Mason Fine (Cherokee Nation) has a quiet confidence about him that is forged from years of perfecting his craft. All while consistently hearing from the outside that he couldn’t do it. At 5-11 he was always told he was too small to succeed at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Fine burst on the scene in Denton last year as a true freshman, starting nine of the 10 games which he appeared as he helped lead the Mean Green to its second bowl game since 2004. He completed 59.4-percent of his passes for 1,572 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions.
“Obviously I struggled a bit my freshman year, just keeping up with the game and I really wasn’t as successful as we wanted to be,” Fine said. “It all kind of just happened last year, so when I finally got to the offseason, I took the time and just watched a lot of film to learn from it all. In spring ball, I had some ups and downs, and I would honestly say this fall camp is when I started making the strides and things just started clearing up for me and they started to get easier.”
It certainly appears easier for the Locust Grove, Oklahoma, native, who has already matched his touchdown total from 2016, and, at 648 yards through two weeks, has produced over 40 percent of his passing yardage from a year ago.
Fine’s performance last week at SMU didn’t produce the win that so many in Denton desired, and he’d be the first to tell you that aside from that, nothing matters. He did however produce the sixth-most passing yards in a game in school history (424), which has him atop Conference USA in passing yardage.
Regardless of the disappointment that stemmed from week two, Fine and the Mean Green offense have certainly grown immensely in year two under head coach Seth Littrell and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Fine credits Harrell for accelerating his development on the field.
“Of course I want to be as successful as I can, and the ceiling can only be limited by yourself,” Fine said. “I have a great opportunity in this offense. We are air raid and we are going to air it out. I’m blessed with a great coach like Graham Harrell to give me the freedom to do stuff like that. Coach Harrell does a great job preparing me and I feel like I’m improving week in and week out and I’m hopeful we can keep putting up those numbers for this team to win.”
A component of the offense that was missing in 2016 but is definitely a weapon in 2017 is the deep ball. Heading into the season Littrell bemoaned the inability to convert on deep passes. That’s not the case in 2017. Fine has dropped perfectly-thrown deep balls into the waiting hands of his receivers, connecting on four touchdown throws longer than 20 yards.
Part of that has to do with his improved footwork in the pocket, his commitment to his mechanics and knowing where his eyes need to be on any given call, and part of it has to do with the improvement of the receiving corps.
Like Fine, returning receivers like Turner Smiley, Rico Bussey, Jr., Michael Lawrence and company have grown within the system, and have a much stronger feel for their assignments, routes and situations.
Then sprinkle in some newcomers who are playmakers, like redshirt sophomore Jalen Guyton and freshman Jaelon Darden, and there’s an ability to open the playbook even more.
“Now I know the offense like the back of my hand,” Fine said. “It’s a great overall offense and we are all working very hard to make everyone around us better. I know what we are trying to accomplish and I understand this style of offense a lot better, so I know what we’re looking for and what coach Harrell is looking for, and that’s making my job a lot easier. The first couple of games we’ve had success with it, but there are tons of areas to improve. But hopefully we can keep it up and improve on our offensive passing game throughout the year.”
Fine has always had his doubters. They were present before he decided to attend Locust Grove High School, a program that had seen better days prior to his arrival. He’s always been smaller than the prototypical quarterback, and, as he says, there is not a thing he can do about his height.
Those doubts followed him even as he shattered school records and became the only two-time Gatorade Oklahoma Player of the Year while leading Locust Grove to new heights.
Things he heard regularly were that he was a system quarterback, that he couldn’t be able to do at the division one level and he wasn’t going to be successful.
He still heard those voices as he went through the decision-making process on where he’d continue his career. Then last year happened. He won the starting job in week two and helped turn around a team that was 1-11 the year prior. Admittedly, there were ups and downs, and with the downs and growing pains, again came the doubters. Fine always has and always will use them as fuel to succeed.
“It has a lot to do with the type of mentality I came into fall camp with,” Fine said. “I came with the same mentality as I did when I came in as a freshman and I had that chip on my shoulder. Every day I think I had the right mindset and it all just started to click.
“It’s kind of hard looking back and listening to those people telling you, `Yeah, you aren’t going to do anything in college and you aren’t going to be successful.’ But being able to back it up really means something about your character and your mindset and your self-determination to achieve those goals. If we happen to break records, we break records, but bottom line, we want to win games.”
The Mean Green’s style of play provides the opportunity to roll up yardage and points, and through two weeks, North Texas is averaging 45.5 per game, up from 24.6 last year. But to be successful in this offense, you need the right quarterback and right chemistry with those around him to really make it go. Fine is growing into just that, as evidenced by his early-2017 successes.
Early-season numbers are nice, but there’s still a long way to go for the Mean Green, who travel to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes Saturday. One thing is certain, Fine will do so with a smile on his face.
“I’m just happy to be out there day in and day out and wake up every day with a smile because you never know which day may be your last in football.”