To Maryland nose guard Rick Fleece, the sudden emergence of Mark Mason as the Terps' tailback of the future is neither mysterious nor surprising.
Fleece, a senior starter, got his first dose of Mason when the freshman from Montgomery County's Churchill High was on the scout team and running opponents' plays against Maryland's first-string defense.
"If he was on the scout team, you didn't want to be on defense," Fleece said as the Terps prepared for their Independence Bowl game against Louisiana Tech Saturday in Shreveport, La. "The fact we did as well as we did against some of the teams is a tribute to the good practice Mark gave us."
Said cornerback Michael Hollis, "We knew all along Mason was a great natural talent."
No longer will Mason's health be risked as a member of the scout team. When regular tailback Troy Jackson left the regular-season finale against Virginia with turf toe late in the second quarter, on came Mason.
He fairly exploded, racing for 116 yards on 18 carries. He tied the game with a 59-yard scoring dash, the longest run from scrimmage of the year for the Terps, and then won it with an 8-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
"He just got the ball," Fleece said simply when asked what Mason ate for breakfast that day.
Clearly, Louisiana Tech can expect to see a lot of Mr. Mason.
"Troy's toe is OK, but we've got to get Mason's hands on the football more than we have," Terps coach Joe Krivak said. "We'll still play two or three guys at the position, but he'll get the ball more."
Maryland will not, however, revert to a two-back offense for this one remaining game. It may next year, though.
"What we might gain in trickery," said offensive coordinator Tony Whittlesey, "we might lose in execution."
Mason is "without a doubt" the Terps' fastest back, according to Whittlesey.
"He has a certain feistiness," Whittlesey said. "He loves football and loves to practice it. He wants to get that extra yard on every play.
"He's especially effective on artificial turf, like Virginia has. To a skill player like Mason, the great footing you get is a real asset. He can stop and start on a dime.
"Mark tends to slip some on grass, like we'll have in the bowl. He's having trouble learning his gears."
Mason came to Maryland fresh from breaking the Churchill records held by Paul Palmer, who went from there to Temple to the NFL. The 19th choice in the 1987 draft, Palmer went from Kansas City to Detroit to Dallas to Cincinnati. The Bengals cut him last August.
Mason rushed for 2,961 yards in three years at Churchill, but says that and the Palmer records he broke "were no big deal." Most of the Atlantic Coast Conference schools, plus Michigan, UCLA, Nebraska and Southern Cal, wooed him.
"Even as a junior, I knew I was coming to Maryland," Mason said. "I felt I wouldn't have to wait so long for playing time."
Krivak and his staff thought Mason might be of immediate assistance and decided not to redshirt him. But after the third game, against Clemson, Mason had a meager 16 yards on seven carries and thought redshirting might be wise.
"It was too late," he said. "I had been in on too many plays."
Mason then saw some action, returning four kickoffs for 103 yards against Georgia Tech and rushing for 52 yards on seven carries against Wake Forest the following week. The next three games he had nary a carry. Frustration set in again.
"I couldn't see any way I was going to get playing time," Mason said. "I thought I could have learned more by redshirting."
He changed his mind after the Virginia game. His two second-half touchdowns in the 35-30 victory over then-No. 8 Virginia prompted even the enemy, Cavaliers coach George Welsh, to laud Mason's "natural ability."
"It was a very profitable end of the year," Mason said. "I'm starting to get in the mode I was in in high school."
Mason entered the Virginia game with a total of 100 yards on 25 carries. In barely more than two quarters, he more than doubled that, to 216.
"The Virginia game gave him confidence, and gave us confidence in him," Whittlesey said. "He has earned the right to play. He's ready."