ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Let’s see: Jobs more expendable than running back in Mike Leach’s passing offense? Espresso vendor on Waikiki, perhaps? Ski-area developer in Kansas?
Fortunately for Marcus Mason, Washington State’s junior back, it’s not nearly so simple. On a 2013 team that finally carved out a bowl berth for the first time in 10 seasons — it meets Colorado State at 11 a.m. Saturday in the New Mexico Bowl — Mason can say he’s become an integral part of WSU’s offense, and if the numbers don’t prove it, the intangibles do.
“He’s always where he’s supposed to be,” said Mason’s position coach, Jim Mastro.
A lot is made of the Cougars’ seeming shrug at the traditional notion of a running game, and indeed, their 58.7-yard average isn’t much. But Mason gets 5.1 yards a carry, and, in an offense that uses check-down throws as virtual runs, Mason is second on the team in catches with 49.
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Then there’s the essential function of pass-protection, which Mason calls “the No. 1 thing.
“Connor (Halliday, the quarterback) is like a brother to me,” said Mason. “Whenever somebody’s blitzing, it’s like they’re trying to come into our house and rob something.”
A year ago, it appeared that the Leach regime was doing what comes naturally to most new staffs — playing the recruit who came in with them.
That was freshman Teondray Caldwell, who got 56 carries in 2012, to a dozen for Mason. But starting in the spring, Mason began to surge.
“He’s real conscientious,” Leach said. “He wants to do everything perfectly, so he’d hesitate some, trying to be precise.”
But as Mastro notes, year two is key in a system, including Leach’s, and so it was for Mason.
“You could see, there was no more thinking involved,” Mastro said. “He was comfortable.”
As for Caldwell? “Marcus just flat beat him out,” Mastro said.
No wonder Leach’s staff connected to Mason. He’s resilient, low-maintenance, dogged.
Asked if he ever reached a point last year when he questioned whether his travail was worth it, Mason said: “I knew that, no matter what, I was going to finish school. At the hardest times, it could have been worse. There’s always a thousand other guys that would love to be in my position.
“It was up to me to change (his status) and no one else could change it besides me.”
This year, Mason has been a fount of productivity: He has four touchdowns, a handful of long catch-and-run receptions, and the 15-yard rush for a score that ignited WSU’s season-turning win at Arizona.
Mason (5 feet 9, 188 pounds) was the Cougars’ consolation prize when Bishop Sankey, long committed to WSU, backed out to sign with Washington.
Through much of his days at Etiwanda (Calif.) High, Mason had been pigeonholed as a defensive back, and by the time he began filling in for an injured back, there was little to grab recruiters in the pivotal junior season.
“My highlight tape my junior year was beyond boring,” he said candidly. “I hope they took it off YouTube. “My senior year is when I really exploded.”
Nothing developed until one January night in 2011, when he got a call out of the blue from then-WSU recruiting coordinator Rich Rasmussen, offering a ride. Mason couldn’t wait to accept, following a prep teammate, receiver Bobby Ratliff, to WSU.
“He’s not the most athletic, talented kid in the world,” said Mastro, “but he’s a quiet leader.”
The running back who blossomed insists there’s greater turf to which the Cougars can be led.
“There’s more out there; this is just a step,” said Mason. “We left a lot of games out there. Next year will be a different story.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org