Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt knew he had a star in the making when Dan Mason was running around the practice fields in the summer and putting devastating hits on offensive players only weeks removed from graduating from Penn Hills High School. Mason's emergence gave Wannstedt the confidence to start him at middle linebacker in the third game of the season against Navy when middle linebacker Adam Gunn went down with an injury.
Mason, who is 6 feet and 225 pounds, burst onto the scene with 11 tackles and two sacks against the Midshipmen, a performance that earned him Big East Conference defensive player of the week honors. But Mason's path to stardom hit a speed bump the next week when he started again at North Carolina State.
Mason was in his comfort zone playing against run-oriented Navy, but he was out of his element against pass-happy North Carolina State. North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson passed for 322 yards and four touchdowns in the Wolfpack's 38-31 victory.
"They passed a lot," Mason said. "That taught me how important my pass coverage is."
• Event: Annual Blue-Gold Game that traditionally culminates spring practice.
• When: 2 p.m., April 17.
• Where: Heinz Field.
Gunn was a senior and returned to the lineup for the final nine games, but the middle linebacker position is Mason's for the next three seasons. For Mason, the experience he earned as a freshman was invaluable and the learning continues this spring as he resumes his starting role.
"We know how aggressive he will be," Wannstedt said. "We know he'll give great effort. He's a physical player. The thing we're working at is putting the whole thing together. He'll be fine. I think Danny is going to have a great year, but he has to be able to play the run, pass, blitz, cover, do it all. And in addition, our middle linebacker makes most of the calls on the field. He's kind of the quarterback on defense, so he has to be able to handle that, too."
Mason has a new mentor who should help ease his transition. Bernard Clark took over as linebackers coach this spring after Joe Tumpkin left to become the defensive coordinator at Central Michigan.
Clark won two national championships when he was the starting linebacker for the Miami Hurricanes in 1987 and '89. He wants to help Mason with his mental approach to the game.
"The best thing about Dan is he has such natural instincts," Clark said. "The thing about Dan is you have to slow him down. He's so excited about playing. He's really hyper when he's out there on the field. It's basically pulling the reigns back and letting him know things develop in front of him -- let it develop and react that way. He's so quick to react right now. That's the biggest thing we're working with him on right now. His instincts and speed are outstanding."
Clark said it's not unusual for a linebacker coming from the high school ranks to be behind in pass coverage skills. Most high school teams do not face sophisticated passing schemes, so when they line up in college and face intricate passing games it is the first time they are exposed to it.
"It's a situation where he hasn't played the pass as much, so it's getting used to it more than anything," Clark said.
Mason played in all 13 games last season and received one more start at outside linebacker in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. He made his first career interception in that game. It came just before halftime on the goal line to help stop a scoring threat.
"I got a little bit of experience, but I'm still learning," Mason said. "It's a process. I did a little last year. I still have to keep going hard. I saw playing as an opportunity. I had to step up and be a man. I was there for a reason, so I wasn't going to back down from it."
Wannstedt said Mason playing early as a freshman will help in his development this season.
"I'm glad he has played some," Wannstedt said. "It won't be like he's a first-year player. I think at middle linebacker you need that."
NOTES -- Freshman receiver Ed Tinker (Brashear) had hand surgery Friday after some bones in his hand were broken at practice Thursday afternoon. ... The team had a controlled scrimmage for the final 30 minutes of practice Saturday afternoon. ... Sophomore receiver Cam Saddler had a touchdown catch in the scrimmage and several other big plays during the day.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.