The freshman middle linebacker could hardly control himself when Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt told him that sixth-year senior Adam Gunn wouldn't play due to a nagging ankle injury, and Dan Mason was ready to erupt when the Panthers' defense finally took the field midway through the first quarter.
Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas recalled the circumstances.
"What a great kid,'' Mustakas said. "Whenever you talk to that kid, you quickly realize the passion he has for the game. He just loves to play football, and I love seeing that in a freshman. But I talked to him before the first play and told him to just calm down and stay focused, because he gets all crazy. He gets all jacked up, and that could lead to some crazy things.
"But he did a great job, and when you see a freshman like that going crazy you just feed off his intensity. The whole defense feeds off of that. Everyone sees him going nuts and hollering, that gets everybody pumped up. We want to get our stuff going. The whole defense gets fired up when you see that. That kid, I'll tell you right now, he really has a bright future here.''
Maybe all that intensity helped Mason burn off the butterflies he felt going into the game. They certainly had to dissipate quickly, because Mason led Pitt with 11 tackles, including six solo, and two sacks for 14 yards lost. Not bad for a first start in Mason's third college game.
"Sure, I was nervous, but who wouldn't be playing as a true freshman,'' Mason said. "But I got some contact early and got over it. ... I knew I'd have a lot of family here, but I didn't tell anybody I was starting.
"And I wasn't really sure I was, either, (but) I had a clue because Adam wasn't practicing much all week. So, I just wanted to play from the best of my ability, and for the most part I think I was able to do that.''
Wannstedt called Mason an old-school linebacker.
"I love that kid,'' Wannstedt said. "He might be as physical as anyone, an old-school middle linebacker. He is something else now. He is all business. ... If you know Danny Mason and have been around him, he's awful serious about what we're doing here.
"He doesn't take anything for granted. He does all those extra things, like watching extra tape, that a lot of freshmen don't do. (And) Dan played like he practiced all week.''
Mason noted that he just works hard and likes to hit people, and "that's what old-school linebackers do,'' he added. That hard work really paid off this week.
"This offense for Navy, they really make you be disciplined, and that's what I concentrated on for this game,'' Mason said. "I couldn't just run around and hit everybody, but I still tried when I got the chance. I still had to stick with my keys, and I think the entire defense did a good job with that.''
"My teammates and coaches expected a lot from me. They saw me in camp, and they know how I play and that I could get it done. So, they really didn't put any added pressure on me. They just told me to go out there and be me, so that's what I did. (But) it took a long time for me to learn this defense.
"Once I started picking it up, things starting being easier for me,'' Mason added. "It wasn't easy at all, but I kept working hard. Just being a middle linebacker, there's pressure in that as the quarterback for the defense. ... I expect to not make any mistakes. I know I'm a freshman, but I didn't want to play like that.''
Might Mason continue to get extensive playing time even when Gunn returns?
"We'll look at the film, but yes, he's going to play,'' Wannstedt said. "We have to take a look at that whole scenario.''
But as Wannstedt likes to say, that's a nice problem to have.
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