Mason Zandi may not be the biggest name in South Carolina’s 2012 signing class, but he’s easily the biggest player.
At 6-foot-8 – plus another half-inch if you really want to be accurate – the two-star offensive lineman from Chapin High stood tall on signing day.
“It’s always been a dream in my mind since I was a young guy. It’s almost surreal to me, and it’s such a blessing,” Zandi said. “I was a Carolina fan for all of my life. I dreamed of wearing garnet and black. I feel completely honored to play for them. I’m ready to get in there and play as hard as I can.”
The 270-pound Zandi began last summer as a relative unknown in recruiting circles until he attended camps at USC and Clemson, where he impressed coaches at both schools with his size and potential, which led to scholarship offers from the Gamecocks and Tigers, as well as East Carolina.
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“He was in the right place at the right time,” Chapin coach Justin Gentry said. “Those coaches look at a big body like that, and they’re fortune tellers. They can see him putting on a few pounds. He’s still raw. He’s got a lot to learn on the offensive side of the ball. But he’s athletic, and he’s got great feet. He’s going to make Carolina a great ballplayer in the future.”
Zandi’s performance at USC’s camp last summer led to an offer from offensive line coach Shawn Elliott. Zandi knew then that he didn’t have the required technique or the necessary weight to impress the coaches, but he did try to show his work ethic.
“Coach Elliott was looking at how hard he could push me and how hard I would work. He pushed me to my max, and he was pleased with my max,” Zandi said.
Not long after that, an offer came from Elliott in a phone call, and Zandi, after consulting with his parents, accepted a few days later.
“He said, ‘Mason, I want you.’ Being a South Carolina fan all my life, I was speechless,” he said.
But Zandi also realized that it was time to go to work in his senior season. After playing exclusively on defense in his high school career, he began to play both ways. Not only did he have to learn what to do from an assignment standpoint, he had to develop a different mentality.
Gentry also knew Zandi’s future home was on offense and gave him the chance to hone those skills. He almost put Zandi at tight end because of his athleticism but settled on putting him at tackle.
“You don’t see many 6-8 defensive linemen at the next level. He had to get that out of his head that he was strictly a defensive guy,” Gentry said. “He was real green, but once we got him thinking about the offensive side of the ball, Mason picked up on things. He’s got a motor. He’s a quick learner. His potential is unlimited.”
Zandi played nearly every play for the Eagles – who went 4-6 on the season – and he also punted. (“You couldn’t snap a ball over his head,” Gentry added, with a smile.) And he gradually made the transition from punishing ball carriers on the defense to understanding the schemes necessary to make a play work on offense.
“When you’re playing a new position, you’ve got a lot to learn. I felt like I got better every day,” he said.
South Carolina now hopes that steady progress continues when he steps on their practice field in August. Zandi focused on watching the offensive linemen work every time he watched the Gamecocks play. He saw players who were strong, smart and fast – skills that are necessary to push around the kind of athletes that play on defensive fronts in the SEC.
Zandi gave up playing basketball several years ago because he loved football more and wanted to focus on improving in football. That improvement has gotten him to the school of his dreams, something that excites Gentry.
“Carolina is up on the rise. Coach Spurrier and his staff have done a great job there,” Gentry said. “He’s going to be the hometown boy, and a lot of these Chapin people go sit in Williams-Brice Stadium every Saturday afternoon. Now they’ll have extra incentive to cheer for somebody out there.”
That thought is gratifying for Zandi.
“I’m really happy,” he said. “I hope I can make my town happy and make my town proud. The community is very important to me.”