Who is Armon Mason? Why Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney is impressed by walk-on DE
CLEMSON — After Clemson football's first scrimmage of spring practice, coach Dabo Swinney mentioned a player he hadn't before as someone who was standing out: Redshirt sophomore defensive end Armon Mason, a walk-on.
"Y'all better learn who Armon Mason is," Swinney said, "because if he sticks with it here, he's going to be a problem."
So who is Mason? For starters, he's the son of NBA veteran Anthony Mason, who spent 13 years in the league. He's also the cousin of Clemson great Grady Jarrett, a fifth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft who currently plays for the Falcons.
But according to his high school coaches, Mason isn't quick to point out those family ties. Despite his famous relatives, Mason's football story is that of an underdog. Or, as his high school head coach Matt LeZotte put it, an "ugly duckling" story.
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The ugly duckling
Mason was something of a late bloomer when it came to football. He was undersized and young for his grade. A nagging back injury had limited his offseason preparation and in-season participation at Richmond Hill High School in Georgia. Between his junior and senior seasons, he was finally healthy enough to get in the weight room and practice ahead of his final year of high school football.
"He was not the strongest guy by any means his senior year," Richmond Hill defensive line coach Chad Blanton said. "But he was able to catch up some from a from an athleticism standpoint. That's where he really began to shine."
One moment in particular made his coaches realize how much Mason had changed. Richmond Hill was playing Camden County, a traditional football power in the Savannah area, and Mason made an unexpected play.
"The running back gets the ball going laterally, and a defensive lineman should not be able to run that guy down," Blanton recalled. "Armon chased down the jet sweep going into the boundary. That was the 'Holy smokes' moment with him. Like, he might be figuring this thing out."
Richmond Hill went on to beat Camden County, a rare feat for the Wildcats. Richmond Hill isn't a Georgia high school football powerhouse. Blanton said it's uncommon for players there to play Power Five football.
Mason, for example, didn't have many college offers in large part because he didn't have much film. Since Mason had missed out on significant playing time with nagging injuries, his coaches had to sell colleges on Mason's athleticism and raw tools.
"We told coaches that if you're willing to take a lottery ticket, you might scratch it off and it'd be nothing," Blanton said. "But you might scratch it off and it might be something big. The total package is there. It's just a matter of him putting it together."
Georgia Military College was interested in the lottery ticket that was Mason. So was Mississippi Valley State, where he originally committed. But he changed his mind, and he opted to walk on at Clemson, where his cousin had become a star.
Becoming a swan
Now entering his third season at Clemson, Mason has caught the attention of Swinney. He remains a walk-on, and he's playing behind a strong lineup of Tigers defensive linemen. It might not be this season, Swinney said, but Mason is one to watch. The ugly duckling might yet become a swan.
"We've just got to keep watering him," Swinney said. "He's still ways to go. But he's a kid I'll just put on your radar that if he hangs in there and just keeps going, he's going to help us."
When LeZotte's current players at Richmond Hill came to lift weights Friday morning, LeZotte shared Swinney's praise of the former Wildcats standout. For a school that doesn't often see players make it to the upper levels of college football, Mason is an example of what could happen if they buy in.
"Armon is one of those guys that we reference that stayed with it, continued to put in the time, continued to put in the work," LeZotte said. "And now, look at what he's able to do and the team he's playing for."
Christina Long covers the Clemson Tigers for the Greenville News and the USA TODAY Network. You can follow her on Twitter @christinalong00 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Clemson football walk-on Armon Mason impresses Dabo Swinney in spring