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I’m just going to come right out and say it: Mason Fine is annoyingly humble.
Now that I’ve said it, let me rephrase it: Mason Fine is annoyingly humble if you’re a journalist looking for a bombastic, headline-worthy quote. If you’re just a dude who loves good football and appreciates good people, well then, Mason Fine, should you meet him, will quickly become one of your favorite human beings.
I’m definitely the latter. And I’m definitely not the former. No ‘Big J’ here. Don’t believe me? Just ask any of the potbellies in pleated khakis and Tommy Bahama shirts who fill a press box on Saturdays.
I’m not looking to create news that doesn’t exist. I have no desire to write bulletin board material—for these bulletin boards that are hidden in undisclosed locations inside of a locker room that I’ve apparently never seen.
I’m just a dude. And Mason Fine is that dude.
Just don’t expect him to tell you about it. A few days ago, I tried, and mostly failed.
“I’m proud of all of the achievements, realizing that all of the hard work is paying off,” Fine began, as though he was about to accept some praise. “But I just have to keep doing what I’m doing. Don’t settle. Keep pushing. There are still a lot of weeks left.”
There he is.
“We’ve done what we’re supposed to do. I did my job. Watching film, though, there’s still a lot of things we can improve on and get better at,” Fine says. “We just have to keep our heads down and keep working. Don’t listen to the outside voices, just listen to the voices inside of our team meeting room.”
The junior from Peggs, Okla.—who, with no FBS offers, was set to walk-on at Oklahoma State before North Texas head coach Seth Littrell came calling—has been lighting up opposing defenses since he stepped into the starting lineup as a freshman.
But this year, Fine has made a jump.
Through two blowout victories, Fine has thrown for 862 yards and seven touchdowns against just one interception. In the Mean Green’s season-opening win against an SMU squad that blew them out a year ago, Fine completed 40-of-50 throws for 444 yards and three touchdowns without a pick.
This, on the heels of a sophomore season during which Fine ranked sixth among all FBS quarterbacks with 1,363 deep passing yards. He ended 2017 with over 4,000 total passing yards and 31 touchdowns. And he looks much better in 2018.
“I’ve been in the weight room,” Fine explains. “I think that has a lot to do with my improvement in terms of accuracy and arm power.”
How, you ask? Well, let’s geek out:
“Let’s say we go doubles formation, four-wide, and I’ve got to throw from the opposite hash all the way to the numbers across the field on a corner route,” Fine says. “I struggled with that my freshman year, statistically, and even last year they talked about it, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be able to make this throw across the field more efficiently.’ So I worked on that, worked on my accuracy and arm power … and now I know I can make that throw.”
It’s not all arm strength for Fine, of course. After UNT’s victory over SMU, Littrell credited Fine for “having his eyes in the right place.”
A freshman quarterback may not even know what this means. The wanna-be offensive coordinator sitting behind you in Section 121 would never see it. But in his third year running Graham Harrell’s offense, Fine has damn-near mastered it.
“There are a lot of tricks you can do with your eyes during a game,” Fine explains. “If you know you’re going to throw to your right, but you know you have that safety reading your eyes, hey, just peak a little bit to the left—but don’t lose the timing. Peak left, but know that once you hit your back foot, you’ve got to put your eyes back on your receiver and deliver it.
“I just throw it to the open man and throw to open space. That’s simplified. But that’s really what it is. Just throw it where they’re not—use your eyes to get the ball where we want to go.”
Fine’s growth, both physically and intellectually, is a major problem for the rest of Conference USA—and, more immediately, for an Arkansas defense that just surrendered 389 passing yards to Colorado State’s KJ Carta-Samuels a week after Colorado held him to 176.
The Razorbacks will enter Saturday’s contest—one that, when it was scheduled, was undoubtedly perceived to be an automatic win—having blown an 18-point third quarter lead in a shocking loss to Carta-Samuels and the Rams. The roster, outside of the running backs room, is as weak as it’s been since at least 2013.
More likely, the cupboard on The Hill is as barren as it’s been in two decades.
In other words, this turned out to be a really bad time to welcome North Texas to Fayetteville—and to welcome Fine home, some 60 miles from Locust Grove (OK) High School, where he was twice named Oklahoma’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
“I’m going to have a lot of fans there, obviously,” says Fine. “It’s going to be a special place for me to play—in front of a Power Five school, a school that was right down my street that I always watched growing up. It’s going to mean a lot to have the opportunity to play in that stadium.
“I’ll be the most prepared I’ve ever been.”
Few commit the amount of focus to weekly game prep and attention to detail that Fine views as common practice. So, ‘the most prepared he’s ever been’ is some kind of prepared.
“You want to go out there and put on a show,” Fine continues. “But what we have to understand is that what we’ve been doing is enough. Don’t go out there trying to do too much. I can’t go out there skipping reads, trying to make throws I wouldn’t normally make. If we just go out there and execute our offense, we’ll have an opportunity at the end of the game to win.”
That’s pure, unadulterated confidence from a player who normally suppresses that sort of authenticity with coachspeak.
There’s blood in the water. It may well be a ‘wrong place-wrong time’ situation for the Razorbacks. Fine knows it—and he’s ready to roll.
“I know they’re not overlooking us. We worry them a little bit,” he says. “We’re champing at the bit to have an opportunity to play this team on a national stage. I’m looking forward to it. I know our team’s looking forward to it.”