Mason Cole certainly understands where his Michigan career has gone, a four-year starter about to tie a record for program starts, but when he said it out loud, even he had to laugh.
Cole, a co-captain and starting left tackle, will make his final start for the Wolverines on New Year’s Day in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, not far from where he grew up in Tarpon Springs, Fla.
“Kinda of my whole career, that’s the only thing that kinda crossed my mind was getting to the next game and preparing for the next game and it just kinda worked out for me,” Cole said recently. “And here I am four years later about to make my 51st start, which is crazy.”
Saying the number out loud, the bigness of it caught Cole off guard, and he started to laugh. Fifty-one starts. That’s truly mind-boggling in a game like football where injuries take their toll. He ties Craig Roh’s record.
So many have said it is tough to start as a freshman offensive lineman, and redshirting is typically the course. But he defied that logic.
“Probably didn’t think it would happen,” Cole said of starting as a freshman. “You’re kinda told throughout your career, ‘Ah, you can’t start as a freshman in college. You can’t play offensive line as a freshman in college.’ But obviously that’s not true. Once I got here and saw I had an opportunity to start, just took it and ran with it and it kinda worked out for me.”
Offensive linemen always have been a special group, bonding with each other and having each other’s back. Shortly after Cole’s parents dropped him off, he got a call from an upperclassman, Graham Glasgow.
“(He) took me to Pizza House, paid for me, too. He kinda took me under his wing from that day on. But all the guys have. That’s what’s so special about playing offensive line here. It’s just a big brotherhood. We’re all here for each other.”
That’s what made being voted a co-captain by his teammates so meaningful. Cole considered leaving after last season and making a run at the NFL, but he wanted to be a captain.
He and linebacker Mike McCray were captains this season.
“I couldn’t have asked for much more from everyone,” he said. “Helping lead this team has been really special. When you’re put in a leadership role like me and Mike have, and Mo (Hurst) and (Henry) Poggi and other seniors, there’s a lot of pressure, but the one thing I’ve learned is keeping an even keel the whole time.
“You can’t get too high, and you can’t get too low, even in the brightest days and the darkest days. You’ve got to keep your head up at all times and keep it level because younger guys are looking at you and how they respond to things.”
That was the biggest highlight of his Michigan career, Cole said, just ahead of one in Jim Harbaugh’s first season as coach in 2015.
“Winning the Citrus Bowl after going 5-7 (and missing a bowl game) my freshman year then the next year going 10-3 and winning a bowl game,” Cole said, when asked about his career highlights. “For those seniors, for what we had all been through, to be able to go from a 5-7 year to winning 10 games was incredible.”
He has played the last three seasons for Harbaugh, and said he hasn’t really figured him out.
“He’s not as crazy as he seems to be,” Cole said. “A lot of people think of him as this crazy guy, but he’s a really good person, a really good coach. A lot of stuff people talk about and see on Twitter and all the social media, that’s only a small portion of the guy he is. Just an incredible coach and an incredible person. He would do absolutely anything for any of us. I think that’s what makes him such a good coach.”
Cole is destined to be a guard or center in the NFL, for which he will begin preparations after the bowl game. After playing center last season, he moved back to left tackle where he began his career, and fifth-year senior Patrick Kugler took over at center.
So in his final year, Cole played out of position.
“It’s what the team needed,” he said. “That’s the thing about Michigan — we’re all here for the team, and the team needed me to play tackle, so I had no problem with it and am happy about it.”
His teammate, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, projected a potential first-round NFL Draft selection, considered not playing in the Outback Bowl, but has decided he will play his final collegiate game. Cole said he didn’t waffle.
“I guess I understand why some people do it, but it was just never in my heart to do that,” Cole said. “I’ve played four years here now, I wouldn’t want to miss the last game, certainly. Just not for me.”
No way he’d miss start No. 51.