No denying North Texas QB Mason Fine as NFL prospect despite combine snub
DENTON, Tex.--The best prospect not at the NFL scouting combine is debatable.
Baylor nose tackle Bravvion Roy, Pitt wide receiver Marcus Ffrench and Duke defensive tackle Trevon McSwain all would be considerations as best prospect.
But there should be no debate over the best football player not at the combine. It’s Mason Fine, who started the last four years at quarterback at North Texas.
“This is the same path from high school to college to the NFL,” said Fine of his combine snub. “It’s never been easy for me. But this just adds more to the story. That will make it that much more satisfying whenever you do make it. It will be a great story to tell.”
It’s already a great story.
Starting in sixth grade. Fine tried out for his middle-school football team in Peggs, Okla., and wanted to play quarterback. But he stood only 5-6 at the time.
“Someone told me I was never going to be a high-school quarterback,” Fine said. “Who gave you the right to tell me I can’t achieve something? Who gives anyone that right?”
Fine enjoyed a growth spurt between sixth and seventh grade, sprouting 3 ½ inches to 5-9 ½. And he fulfilled his dream of playing quarterback at Locust Grove High School. Did he ever.
Fine went on to set Oklahoma state records for career passing yards (13,081) and touchdowns (166). Only seven quarterbacks nationally ever threw for more yards than Fine and only four ever threw for more touchdowns. Fine also became the only two-time Oklahoma High School Player of the Year in state history.
But the college recruiters saw what his talent evaluators in middle school saw – someone too short to play quarterback. At 5-10 now, Fine received a handful of small-college offers – Austin Peay, Central Oklahoma, Emporia State and Northeastern State – but only one Division I offer from North Texas. So he accepted it.
As a true freshman, Fine came off the bench in the fourth quarter of the season opener against SMU to complete eight-of-11 passes and lead North Texas to a late touchdown in a blowout loss. He started the second game and completed 11-of-22 passes for 108 yards in a blowout victory over Bethune Cookman.
Fine also started the third week in his first-ever road game at Florida. Having regularly played in front of crowds of 3,000 at his 3-A high school, the Swamp was an eye-opening experience for Fine. A partisan throng of 90,000 turned out and saw Fine complete only 6-of-22 passes for 66 yards with an interception in a 32-0 shutout loss.
That was the low point. Everything that followed was a sprint to the heights. Fine went on to become a four-year starter for the Mean Green, setting school records for passes (1,655), completions (1,039), yards (12,505) and touchdowns (93). Only 27 quarterbacks in NCAA history ever threw for more yards and only 39 ever threw for more touchdowns.
There were 17 quarterbacks invited to the NFL scouting combine next week. Only one came within 2,000 career passing yards of Fine – Oregon’s Justin Hebert, who looks like the NFL wants a quarterback to look at 6-6, 237 pounds. Hebert passed for 10,544 yards in the Pac 12 and was the MVP of the Senior Bowl.
Fine wasn’t invited to the Senior Bowl. He had to settle for an invite to the East-West Shrine Game where he could line up against players from Power 5 schools. He came off the bench to complete 4-of-6 passes for 66 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown pass to an Ohio State receiver.
But Fine already knew he could play at that level.
After Florida, North Texas played Power 5 schools Iowa, Arkansas and Cal in successive years. Fine completed 16-of-26 passes for 167 yards to keep the Mean Green within a field goal into the fourth quarter at Iowa before the Big Ten Hawkeyes put the game away with two late scores in 2017. He completed 24-of-45 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown at Arkansas in a 44-17 upset of the SEC Razorbacks in 2018, then completed 21-40 passes for 208 yards and two TDs in 23-17 loss at Cal against the nation’s 33rd best defense in 2019.
“Cal had a great defense,” Fine said. “They were big and fast but we were able to hold our own against them. The speed of the game is no different (at the Power 5 level). The guys are just a little bigger, but the mental processing remains the same. That’s what it came down to.
“And the game slowed down for me every year.”
Indeed. Fine was named the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year in both 2017 and 2018 and was a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award in 2019.
“My height has never been an issue,” Fine said. “But I’ve never played quarterback at 6-2, so I don’t know how that feels. This is all I know. Watch me practice. Watch me play and see if it affects me. I don’t know how a quarterback 6-2 sees the field but I’ve never had any problem getting the ball out. Moving around, throwing sidearm, changing your arm angles, throwing off your back foot … throwing from different positions and not letting the ball get tipped. That’s kind of what I think I can do well.”
Fine attended the Manning Passing Academy last summer. Not that he needed it, but it was yet another confirmation that he belongs in the NFL conversation.
“What I loved about being at the Manning Passing Academy was that there’s (Clemson’s) Trevor Lawrence throwing on one side of me and (Georgia’s) Jake Fromm on the other,” Fine said. “It was a great to be able to compare myself against those guys. I felt like I held my own against them. If you looked at each throw – and you didn’t look at the quarterback – I don’t think you’d be able to tell who threw what. I felt my arm strength and accuracy was right there with them.”
Fine certainly has role models. Fran Tarkenton became a Hall-of-Fame quarterback standing just 6-0. Joe Theismann became an NFL MVP and Drew Brees won NFL passing titles, both at 6-0. Russell Wilson won a Super Bowl at 5-11 and Doug Flutie went to a Pro Bowl at 5-9. Kyler Murray became the first overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft at 5-10.
And the game is changing. The NFL is no longer strictly a pocket-passer game. Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is proof of that. Get out of the pocket, move around, extend the play, make a throw. Mobility helped Lamar Jackson become the NFL’s MVP last season. It's also been a key to the success of Wilson, who is now a seven-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion. Fine certainly has the legs to extend plays, setting a school record for quarterbacks with an 80-yard touchdown jaunt in 2016 against Texas-San Antonio.
“I looked up to Drew Brees and Russell Wilson,” Fine said. “If those guys can make it, why can’t I? Those are the guys who gave me the road map. Those are the guys who give me hope and keep me pushing and working hard to achieve my dream. Those guys are always in the back of my mind when it comes to working out, training and playing the games.
“You keep hearing all the negativity and people telling me how hard it’s going to be. I knew getting to this point wasn’t going to be easy. I just need to continue to work hard like those guys.”
Fine’s greatest achievement at North Texas wasn’t his 12,000 passing yards, the record touchdown run or the upset of Arkansas.
“My proudest achievement was being a three-year captain,” Fine said. “That says more about me than anything on the field statistically. That’s how good of a teammate I’ve been, how many friendships I’ve developed, how much respect the guy have for me. I’ve done things right, consistently, day-in and day-out for all four years I’ve been here.
“I’m not going to have all these measurables. But what I do bring to the table is all the things you can’t measure. That’s what I’ve prided myself on these last eight years – controlling the things that I can control.”
An invitation to the combine was out of his control. But his future in football is something he can control. His pro day at North Texas is March 26 and he knows he’ll be in an NFL training camp next summer. He also knows he belongs there.
“I don’t care how the draft goes,” Fine said. “I don’t care what team I end up with. All I’m asking is one opportunity. That’s all I need. Just one chance.”