The big leap: FCS graduate transfer Mason Halter thriving on Florida O-line
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mason Halter couldn't help but laugh again Monday when he thought about the past three months. "It's crazy," he said, shaking his head. "It's a crazy jump."
As he spoke those words, Halter had crammed his 6' 6" frame into a chair on the sixth level of the press box complex at Florida Field. Two days earlier, 90,585 people had packed the stadium to watch Halter's new team shock Ole Miss 38–10.
Before kickoff, Halter walked to midfield as one of Florida's captains. Then he started at right tackle for the fifth consecutive game. On the first play, Halter noticed Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche lined up in a three technique on the outside eye of Gators right guard Antonio Riles. On the snap, Nkemdiche twisted outside. Suddenly, Halter—who began his college career in 2011 as a 250-pound tackle on a half scholarship at Fordham—found himself matched up with the guy who might be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL draft. "That guy's huge," Halter says. "That's something you don't see in the Patriot League every day—let alone ever."
That same day, Halter's old team had gone on the road and whipped Lafayette in front of 3,774 people. The week before, Halter's former Fordham teammates had drawn 3,471 at home in the Bronx for a 54–31 win over Monmouth. "I was used to and comfortable with my 5,000-seat, one-sided stadium with the baseball field on the other side," Halter says. "It was nice."
Halter has found The Swamp to be just as comfortable. While the move of quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. from Eastern Washington to Oregon drew all the headlines, Halter's jump from the FCS to the Power Five might be just as important for his team. The Gators took the FCS All-America because he was an athletic 295-pounder and because they desperately needed experience of any kind along the line. Only one of Florida's starters (left guard Trip Thurman) had started an SEC game before this season. Halter hadn't played at that level, but he had played, and the wisdom from that experience has helped him become a critical part of a line that has vastly outperformed the microscopic expectations placed upon it coming into the season.
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Unlike Adams, Halter didn't have the option to remain with his original team. Though he hadn't played in 2011, the Patriot League has strict rules about redshirting. A player has to miss the season with an actual injury. Halter, from the Cleveland suburb of Hinkley, Ohio, simply wasn't ready to play in '11. That didn't satisfy the rule, so Halter had to move on.
Fordham coach Joe Moorhead sent video of Halter to programs in the FBS and FCS, and he knew he'd get an enthusiastic response. "We had a bunch of schools interested in a 6' 6", almost 300-pound tackle who is really athletic," Moorhead says.
Halter considered Kansas, Delaware, Sacred Heart and several other schools before finally settling on Old Dominion. He would move up to the FBS, and the jump in competition might help Halter be ready to attempt to make an NFL team in 2016. Moorhead believes Halter would have been invited to a camp had he decided to leave college after getting his economics degree from Fordham in May, but Halter thought he'd be better prepared with another year. "I did think about it," Halter says. "The main thing that made me want to take a fifth year is I knew I wasn't ready. There was no way I was going to make it."
As Halter prepared to move to Conference USA for his final season, one Fordham assistant used a family connection to check one more school. Christian Pace, the brother of Fordham tight ends coach Ian Pace, is a Florida graduate assistant. Ian Pace knew his brother's team was desperately seeking offensive line depth on the graduate transfer market. Halter's video popped up on screens in Gainesville, and offensive line coach Mike Summers liked what he saw. In the Rams' uptempo offense, Halter was an athletic run blocker who also had nimble feet when pass blocking. He was such a good athlete that his Fordham coaches had drawn up a tackle eligible two-point conversion play for him when they played at Cincinnati in 2012. The play was the highlight of a 49–17 loss. "We got him the ball out in space," Moorhead says. "He made a nice cut and dove in the end zone. No one was happier than Mason and the rest of the offensive linemen."
No one is happier for Halter than Moorhead, who believes Halter's smooth transition to the SEC only further validates the work of Fordham's staff—which has led the Rams to a 33–11 record since Moorhead's arrival prior to the 2012 season. Moorhead believes Fordham offensive line coach Joel Rodriguez, a former Miami center, developed Halter quite well in their three seasons together. "In a sense, it's almost like having one of your guys go on and play in the NFL," Moorhead says. "You feel great about graduating your guys to a higher level of football."
Halter has graduated to a higher level, but that level has not overwhelmed him. In Saturday's first quarter, a game run by two rushers caused him to hesitate for a moment and allow a sack, but Halter's assignments didn't have much more success on the night. It's clear Florida coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier are calling plays to keep from asking their inexperienced line to do too much, but that line is performing against some top-shelf talent when necessary. For example, on Florida's final touchdown of the first half Saturday, Halter slowed Rebels defensive end Fadol Brown just long enough. Brown reached quarterback Will Grier a split second after Grier delivered a touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway. Halter spent plenty of time blocking Nkemdiche, who routinely twisted out from a three technique to test the FCS transfer. "They were pressuring the other side and bringing him to me," Halter says. "That's fine by me if they think I'm incapable."
The increased speed of the defenders he faces hasn't bothered Halter because he made most of his adjustments on the practice field. "You really don't think about it too much," he says. "I see it every day with [Florida senior] Jon Bullard. The kid might be the best defensive end I've seen my whole life. I really don't think about it. I just think about technique."
In fact, the game itself is slower at Florida. The Rams averaged 74 offensive plays per game, but only because they were so far ahead in so many games. At practice, they were expected to squeeze off a play every 16 seconds. So Halter was accustomed to playing at a furious pace with no TV timeouts. In the SEC, the constant breaks to accommodate ESPN or CBS have made it easier for Halter to catch his breath.
Though he's done it four times now, Halter still can't believe the roar when he emerges with his teammates from the tunnel at The Swamp. "It's indescribable," he says. "It's really just breathtaking." Halter grew up an Ohio State fan, but while playing for St. Ignatius High, he came to grips with the fact that his college football future would be in stadiums considerably smaller than the Horseshoe. Now, he's reveling in the brand-name college football experience. Saturday, he and the Gators will visit Missouri. Next week, they'll head to LSU's Tiger Stadium. "It's such a dream come true," Halter says. "I grew up watching this on ESPN."
Halter's former Fordham teammates are loving his transition, too. They ask constant questions about the gear, the speed of his new teammates and opponents and the food at the training table. A group of graduated teammates who work in New York have found a bar in the city that hosts Florida fans on Saturdays. On Nov. 7, the group plans to visit Gainesville for the Vanderbilt game.
When they get there, people will inevitably ask where they went to college. And when they answer "Fordham," people will inevitably hear "Florida." This happens all the time, Fordham grad Moorhead says. Halter may be the first person who won't have to correct that mistake. "I told him, 'Now you've got the best of both worlds,'" Moorhead says. "You've gone to Fordham, and you've gone to Florida. You're right on both counts."