Mason Cole ready to be thrown into the fire, fury at center in the NFL

University of Michigan offensive lineman Mason Cole, an East Lake High School grad, practices for the Outback Bowl. (Chris Urso, Times)
University of Michigan offensive lineman Mason Cole, an East Lake High School grad, practices for the Outback Bowl. (Chris Urso, Times)
Published April 11 2018

It won't be too big for him. That much we know about Mason Cole.

The NFL is a tougher game, with the best players in the world who are not there just for fame and fortune, but to feed their families.

But Cole, 22, has always been a prodigious talent who stood out at an early age. He stood out when he played up several years from his age group in the East Lake Youth Football League. He stood out when he started at left tackle as a freshman at East Lake High. He stood out as the first true freshman to start the season opener at tackle for Michigan, the first of 51 consecutive starts to tie a school record.

"I always told him, 'If you're going to get better, you've got to play with the big guys and get knocked on your butt,' " said Cole's father, John. "But the next year and the following year, it will seem easier."

The 6-foot-4, 305-pound Cole is only a few weeks away from feeling more heat. He is expected to be a third- or fourth-round selection in the NFL draft. Most teams project him at center, a position he played for one season under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. As a senior, Cole agreed to move back to tackle, but his versatility will be a huge advantage at the next level.

"I think it's been big in my college career," Cole said. "I played left tackle for three years and center for a year. I think the biggest thing was playing outside for three years and moving inside, I personally don't think a lot of people can do that. …

"Playing for Coach (Jim) Harbaugh and that whole staff, running the offense we ran, I don't think there's a better place in the country to play if you want to prepare for an NFL offense because we were running one with everything we were doing. So playing for him definitely gives me a leg up."

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Harbaugh arrived after Cole's freshman season and kept him at tackle. A year later, he moved him to center, a position that requires a great deal of intelligence in Michigan's offense to make the protection calls and recognize defensive fronts.

"All Mason Cole has done is start every single game of his career," Harbaugh said. "Mason is a do-it-right guy all the time."

It's a credit to his parents, John and Maggie, who have instilled an inexhaustible work ethic into their family. John worked to pay his own way through Northern Illinois and is a successful businessman who is in sales for agriculture products and owns a logistics company. The family also owns a wood pallet manufacturing company in Clearwater.

Cole has become an iron man, a player with a streak of 104 consecutive starts in high school and college. In fact, no one can remember him missing a snap.

Cole has always been a good athlete. He grew 7 inches between sixth and seventh grade. He was tall and slender, and it took him several years to build some muscle around that enormous frame.

After his sophomore year for the Eagles, he attended a football camp at Florida State run by Jimbo Fisher. Before that, John says, they had not thought too much about college football. But afterward, Fisher approached the family. "Jimbo Fisher came up to us after the camp and asked, 'Are you Mason's parents? … Well, we want your son.' My response was, 'Want him for what?' He said, 'We want to make him offer.' "

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Cole had more than 20 Division I-A offers, including Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Ohio State and USC. Former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who was working for son Lane at USC, had the Cole family on speed dial until he chose Michigan. Playing in front of 110,000 fans as an 18-year-old didn't faze him.

Harbaugh's decision to move Cole to center was an effort to get the five best linemen on the field. But he also recognized that was the position he would play in the NFL.

"To play tackle, I think you have to be athletic," Cole said. "And to carry it over and be able to play center, I think it's huge. Not being as much of a mauler but more using your athleticism to win drills, to win games."

Cole tested well at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. His 5.23 in the 40-yard dash ranked second among all centers and he benched pressed 225 pounds 23 times. He excelled in the offensive line drills.

Where does he need to get better? Cole's athleticism is very good, but like many offensive linemen who come to the NFL, he will have to work on hand placement and his technique. Some say he could be vulnerable against power rushers.

The good news is that he has been compared in terms of style and ability to Bucs center Ryan Jensen, who just signed a four-year, $42 million contract.

"I grew up my whole life watching guys like Aaron Rodgers play football," Cole said, "and to have a chance to be his center or an offensive lineman for him next year, that's just incredible to think about, how fast time flies and how great of a journey this has been."