Mason Harris made a name for himself rushing quarterbacks in high school. Now, he’s learning the role of being quarterback of the defense.
Harris, a redshirt freshman from Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., moved from weakside to middle linebacker this spring. That’s been a challenge for someone hoping to grow into an SEC defensive end.
“It’s been kind of hard, going from rushing the quarterback to dropping back in coverage. I think I’m getting it well now,” he said. “Once I got here I realized I wasn’t going to get up to 250, 260. Maybe in the future. I’m too light right now to get on the line.”
The 6-foot-3 Harris came to USC weighing 195 pounds. He is playing this spring at 220 pounds, with 230 or 235 his target weight at linebacker. He played defensive end, linebacker and offensive tackle at Ridgeland High in Rossville, Ga., recording 119 tackles and 15 sacks as a senior.
South Carolina’s defensive ends are anywhere from 250 to 290 pounds. Harris is playing behind senior linebackers Shaq Wilson (5-11, 224) and Reginald Bowens (6-3, 254) on the depth chart.
Harris is doing better than anticipated, said Kirk Botkin, USC’s linebackers coach. And yes, Botkin said, coaches would like him to get bigger.
“He’s an athletic kid,” Botkin said. “We’ve got to get him to pull the trigger and go downhill a little more. At times he looks outstanding, and then sometimes it looks like he’s thinking and not processing fast enough. That’s part of being young and being green. You can’t play fast if you’re thinking.”
Reading the offense’s plays “has been pretty tough,” but Harris says he’s catching the defensive signals better than he did last summer. He gets veteran guidance in live drills from senior weakside linebacker Damario Jeffery.
Botkin said Harris could become a designated pass rusher in the future.
“He does have that knack,” Botkin said. “You can tell when he blitzes, he has a little bit of wiggle. He’s got some good hips. He does some good things that could help us rushing the passer.”
Harris has handled the move to middle linebacker well, senior weakside linebacker Quin Smith said.
“Mason is doing good,” Smith said. “For his size, he might have a little ways to go. But he’s handled it perfect. He’s coming in there and calling the defense like he should.”
Harris could see plenty of playing time this season on special teams. With four senior linebackers, meaningful snaps are more realistic in 2013. Harris understands that, and he’s using this spring to get smarter and more comfortable at his new position.
“I work hard every day,” Harris said. “You never know what can happen to a player. I'm just trying to learn all the plays and be ready for next year.”