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Mason McCormick: The meanest, nicest, most underrated offensive lineman in the NFL Draft

Apr. 25—SIOUX FALLS — Back in February, Green Bay Packers tight end Tucker Kraft was asked to provide a scouting report on the handful of former South Dakota State teammates who were hoping to follow him to the NFL.

The loquacious Timber Lake native sung the praises of running back Isaiah Davis and his power running style. He raved about the way left tackle Garret Greenfield moves for a man who's 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds.

And when he got to Mason McCormick, Kraft paused, chuckled and offered:

"Mason? Well, Mason's just the meanest son of a bitch I've ever played football with."'

There are dozens of other Jackrabbits and South Dakota State opponents who would attest to Kraft's assertion.

But to SDSU fans and those who know McCormick away from the football field, it might be hard to believe.

Mason McCormick? The guy who stays on the field for an hour after games signing autographs and posing for pictures? The guy who carves pumpkins with kids in Brookings for Halloween? The guy who always has a funny one-liner for the media?

That Mason McCormick?

"People use the term 'flip the switch'," said retired Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier. "With Mason I think it's more like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He is, off the field, one of the nicest guys that has ever played for me. On the field, he is pure intensity. He plays the game the way it was meant to be played — to the limit."

The intensity, the mean streak that McCormick brings with him to the trenches as a dominant left guard, has paid off to a greater degree than almost anyone could've predicted. The former Roosevelt High School standout came to SDSU on a partial scholarship, with no other Division I offers, and is now one of the highest rated guards in this year's NFL draft class. McCormick could hear his name called on Friday in rounds two or three, and if he doesn't, will surely be selected on Saturday.

He's one of a handful of Jackrabbits expected to gain entry into pro football this year and will be the first former Rough Rider to be drafted. And he was one of the driving forces in the Jackrabbits winning the first two national championships in their program history.

McCormick is a self-made player if there ever was one, and the two-time All-American is shaping up for a long NFL career in which he plans on making the same kind of impact on his new team that he did as a student-athlete: A terror on the field, a gentleman off of it, and a leader who demands the absolute best out of everyone around him.

"As an O-line coach you'd always rather have to pull a guy back from the edge than push him to it," said SDSU offensive line coach Ryan Olson. "And Mason's toe is always right on the edge. That's what you want. There are guys that play offensive line with a defensive mentality — I'm playing on your side of the line. When you get defensive players having to respond to what you do, they're not thinking about winning the next rep, they're just trying not to get their ass kicked. That's how Mason impacted the game."

McCormick is aware of his dichotomy of personalities, and makes no apologies for it.

"There's only one way to play this game — hard, fast and physical," he said. "If you don't go out there with the correct mindset you'll get gobbled up. But off the field there's no reason to be rude to people. I've been very blessed to be surrounded by great coaches, great teammates and great people here. I want to express my gratitude for that however I can."

McCormick grew up in a sports family, and basketball was the focus. His dad, Lee, played college hoops at Mount Marty, and that was Mason's first love, too, especially after his first taste of tackle football.

That came when McCormick was in third grade, and he was rudely welcomed to the violent nature of the sport during a game at Memorial Middle School in Sioux Falls.

"He goes out there for his first couple plays and almost immediately gets leveled — just knocked flat on his ass," recalls Mason's mother, Kibbi McCormick. "He came over to the sidelines and there were tears in his eyes. When we got home, he gets out of the car, slams the door and shouts, 'I can't believe you guys paid money so I could get hurt!' and cried and stomped into the house."

Kibbi and Lee share a long laugh remembering the story, until finally Kibbi adds: "Now when I see him pancaking guys and saying mean things to them while they're laying on the ground. I wonder if maybe that's in the back of his mind."

That rocky debut did not, as it turned out, sour McCormick on football. He kept playing basketball, but it didn't take long for him to realize putting on the pads was his passion.

One day during his sophomore year of high school, McCormick came home with news for his parents. He was done with basketball. And all in on football.

"He was almost homeless after that," Lee says with a rueful grunt.

"It was a sad day," adds Kibbi. "Lee went into mourning for about two weeks."

But after accepting his son's decision, Lee asked Mason how he could help him.

"He said don't worry, I got it," Lee remembers. "And then he started getting up every morning for workouts and going to the weight room. He really committed himself."

McCormick had shown promise on the Roosevelt junior varsity team as a sophomore. Lee remembers a game where Mason drove a defender he was blocking all the way off the field of play and onto the track that surrounded the turf. And Rough Riders coach Kim Nelson took notice. McCormick was growing to the size of a potential varsity starting lineman, and Nelson saw footspeed and flexibility that indicated more was there to be unlocked.

"I talked to his parents before his junior year and I told 'em, 'I think he's got a chance to play college football and get a scholarship,'" Nelson said. "Lee was pacing back and forth like he didn't want to hear it because he was such a big basketball guy."

But Nelson's words struck a chord.

"We couldn't believe it," Kibbi says. "I was like, a scholarship? Do you think he could play at, like, Dakota Wesleyan? (an NAIA school Kibbi attended.) And he was like, no, I think he could maybe play at South Dakota State. We were like, SDSU? Are you (expletive) kidding me? Maybe giving up basketball wasn't such a bad idea after all."

McCormick quickly proved Nelson's premonition to be accurate.

He became a starter as a junior, in 2016, playing guard alongside center Austin Boen, who had already committed to play for the Jacks. By the spring of his junior year in school, McCormick committed, too.

"He wasn't heavily recruited, but he really came on as a junior and he just really wanted to be at SDSU," said Jason Eck, who was the Jacks O-line coach at the time and is now the head coach of Idaho. "He was just a great fit. We knew we wanted him and he committed without even knowing what his scholarship would be. He just wanted to be a Jackrabbit that bad."

That enabled McCormick to go into his senior year with no distractions, and it was at this point that the "mean SOB" side of his personality began to take shape.

After one practice, McCormick called out a teammate who balked at running conditioning drills by referring to him by a name that questioned his masculinity. A fight ensued.

Nelson knew he couldn't condone that kind of behavior and admonished McCormick accordingly. But he still kind of liked it.

"He was always that guy who made sure his teammates were locked in," said Nelson, who stepped down from Roosevelt after last season and is now a USF assistant. "He kind of ruled the locker room, and everyone in his class followed him. I think we got some things out of some players we might not have gotten without Mason. He would drag people along. Sometimes it was blunt and sometimes it was confrontational, but that's what we needed at the time."

The Riders made it all the way to the Dakota Dome his senior year, nearly upsetting a heavily favored Washington team in the state title game.

The leadership was important, but McCormick also established himself as a dominant blocker.

"In high school, guys that size are good at blocking the guy right in front of them, pushing them back and that's probably all you get out of them," Nelson said. "Mason was looking for linebackers. We'd run a zone scheme and he'd double-team and then slide off and go looking for someone else to put in the ground. That was the thing I told college coaches. He was different. Most guys are just happy if their guy didn't make the tackle. Mason wasn't."

McCormick arrived in Brookings in the fall of 2018, excited to join Boen, who had redshirted the year before, and another former Rough Rider, Grant Schmidt, who had played at Ohio State and Cincinnati before coming to SDSU.

The Jacks had a strong, veteran-led offensive line with Tiano Pupungatoa, Wes Genant, Evan Greeneway and Tyler Weir at the forefront. McCormick saw action in three games, within the threshold to count it as a redshirt year.

Pupungatoa, a converted defensive lineman, was the team's left guard, and he had the same mean streak that is now so often attributed to McCormick. Pupungatoa was an All-American as a senior, making a name for himself as a physical and violent pulling guard. When he graduated (getting a cup of coffee with the Minnesota Vikings), McCormick replaced him, in more ways than one.

"When Tiano graduated we needed another mean guy, and Mason took that upon himself," said former defensive tackle Thomas Stacker. "We'd get in fights in practice where it would literally be the entire D-line fighting Mason."

McCormick played in 12 games that 2019 season, which included two starts, but the Jacks were dumped in their first playoff game by Northern Iowa.

Little did they know, it would be a long time before they'd take the field again. COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season, with the FCS moving its schedule to the spring of 2021. It was during this long layoff that McCormick asserted himself as not just an undisputed starter on the O-line, but as one of the team's most important leaders.

The Jacks had practices in the fall, but with no guarantee they'd play games anytime soon, competitiveness and intensity waned.

The 2019 season had ended on a sour note, and after years of steadily moving closer and closer to the program's first national championship, it was fair to wonder if momentum had stalled. SDSU had become a regular playoff contender thanks to a recurring cast of NFL-caliber skill players, but the play in the trenches still hadn't caught up. That would begin to change during the pandemic, and McCormick was at the forefront.

"He practiced like it was a game," Stacker said. "That fall when we weren't playing, our reps were game reps. If you didn't play hard, you were getting your face ripped off."

Greenfield and Aron Johnson developed into quality tackles while McCormick settled in at left guard and immediately began playing at an elite level. And on the other side of the ball, the Jacks were developing elite defensive linemen, too. Stacker, Tolu Ogunrinde, Caleb Sanders, Reece Winkelman, Xavier Ward, Krockett Krolikowski, Cade Terveer — the list goes on.

"I wanted to be able to go out there and set the pace," McCormick said. "To be a guy where they could feed off of my energy. I'm gonna bring a ton of intensity to this game and I want my teammates to do the same. I think holding people accountable and seeing them blossom into what they can be is all part of being a good teammate."

These units went head to head, and turned SDSU into a serious contender. The Jacks made it to their first national championship in that spring season, led by true freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski. (It was McCormick, Stiegelmeier says, who came into the coach's office and advocated for Gronowski to be the starter.) McCormick earned all-conference honors. While SDSU lost to Sam Houston State in Frisco, the program had taken an important step, and the fierce battles in practice had gone a long way towards getting them there.

"It's the iron-sharpens-iron mentality," Stiegelmeier said. "I mean, how many times did I hear Mason say the best guy he ever faced was Caleb Sanders? Our coaches were committed to it, too. There's always the chance of injury but our coaches always felt, and I did, too, that the benefit of doing that far outweighed the risk of injury."

McCormick vs. Sanders, Greenfield vs. Winkelman — the battles were epic. And heated. This was when teammates learned about the mean SOB McCormick can be.

"It got to the point that (defensive line coach Christian Smith) was like, hey, if you're getting your ass kicked, do something about it," Stacker said. "When you've played your whole life and reached the Division I level you have certain things that have always worked. But with Mason, I'd ask Coach Smith what should I do here and he'd be like, there's not a lot you can do. It finally came to a point where I was like, OK, this dude might just be better than me."

The Jacks won 11 games and reached the FCS semifinals in 2019, but fell one win short of getting back to Frisco. McCormick started all 15 games and was named all-conference. A good player was getting better, and with virtually their whole team returning in 2022, it would be national championship or bust.

After a 7-3 loss to Iowa in their opener, the Jacks rolled to 14 straight wins against FCS opponents on their way to the title, beating rival North Dakota State in Frisco to claim the program's first national championship.

McCormick was named an All-American, as his leadership, dominant blocking and intimidating presence had by now become the stuff of legend.

"I coached college football for 46 years," said Stiegelmeier, who retired following the 2022 national championship. "Mason McCormick is one of the best leaders I've ever been around. What does that mean? What he says is appropriate in the moment. Some guys just put a bunch of profanity and noise together and yell it. After 2-3 times nobody's listening anymore. Mason wasn't like that. He held guys accountable. He set the tone in practice. If someone wasn't meeting the standard, he let them know. I can put all the leaders I've had in my career into one bucket and he rises to the very top."

Though he was a senior, McCormick (and several other Jackrabbits) still had an extra year of eligibility available to them because of the pandemic. McCormick and Greenfield, who had by this time established himself as a similarly dominant left tackle, were both beginning to eye an NFL career, but few draft analysts had them ranked very high.

So they announced prior to the national championship they'd be coming back in 2023. Yes, in part to chase another title, but also to strengthen their NFL prospects.

Greenfield and McCormick attended an offensive line bootcamp in the Twin Cities area with former NFL lineman Alex Boone, where they impressed Boone and held their own with several other FBS O-linemen. They entered the 2023 season holding themselves to an extremely high standard, knowing FCS draft candidates always face an uphill battle.

It all paid off.

By year's end, the Jacks had gone 15-0, rolled to a second straight national championship and extended their winning streak to 29. McCormick was an All-American again, as was Greenfield. McCormick ended his career by starting 57 consecutive games, and left SDSU with a whopping 70 career games played.

"I've watched plenty of average players become great just from doing the little things the right way, and he's probably a prime example of that," said Jacks coach Jimmy Rogers. "He's built himself more than anybody else into what he's become. He cut like 17 percent body fat. Changed his diet. He went from being a chubby, overweight kid to maybe the most athletic guard in the nation, and now he's gonna play in the NFL. We can take a little credit for some of that development, but most of it goes to him and his dedication."

McCormick's mean streak took center stage at several points throughout his final season. There were personal foul penalties. Maybe a few too many. But there's no doubt he became an intimidating presence, and that helped the Jacks.

Olson recalls a game last year in which the Jacks called a power run play, and McCormick, pulling on the play, executed a textbook block on the middle linebacker to spring an 8-yard run. That would've meant 2nd and 2, but a flag came in late.

"I hear the guys in the press box go, 'Dammit, Mason.' And I'm like, 'He didn't do anything,'" Olson remembers. "But (offensive coordinator Zach) Lujan was like, 'No, he dropped an elbow on this kid. It was bad.' They show the replay and it's like, yep, elbow right on his head, 15-yard penalty. We had to punt because of his stupid penalty. And I could see it on his face when he came off the field — guilty as hell.

"But here's the thing you notice when you watch the rest of the game," Olson continues. "That (linebacker) after every play was going to the officials begging for a call. He wasn't fitting the gap anymore. He wasn't playing the way he'd been coached to play. He was playing slow and he was playing timid. He was off his game. When you can psychologically affect an opponent like that, and they're playing more in fear than aggressive or free, it changes the tenor of the game. It's an advantage, and it shows up on tape, too. Other teams are watching that film going, man, that left guard is destroying people. That's in the other team's head going into a game."

Was McCormick dirty? That probably depends on who you ask. His mom blushes recalling some of the stories Mason has told his parents about the trash talk and foul language that goes on in the trenches, and there were times last year that McCormick's post-whistle penalties annoyed fans. But most offensive skill players will tell you they appreciate having a guy on their side who is willing to push the boundaries of physicality in defense of them.

"He wants to let the other team know — that was me," said Nelson. "Any quarterback appreciates a lineman who will risk a flag to say, 'That's my guy and you're gonna have to go through me to get him.' If that means a penalty once in awhile you'll take it."

With Rogers taking over for Stiegelmeier, McCormick's leadership took on even greater importance. If you attended a Jackrabbit practice at any time last year, you saw McCormick talking to Rogers, talking to Lujan, talking to Olson. He never hesitated to ask questions or give feedback or suggestions. He was respectful enough to never cross a line, but the coaches also respected him enough to value his input.

"He's just a passionate kid, and he invests so much time that it's pretty natural for him to lead," Rogers said. "As a head coach I'm sure gonna miss that. What did he think of the day? Was it good, was it not good? He was always gonna be honest. He didn't just tell me what I wanted to hear. Being an honest evaluator, admitting when it's not acceptable. That's half the battle of being good. He was the best at that, and I mean in every way."

McCormick's reputation around the Missouri Valley Conference as a menace is funny because of how differently he's perceived by South Dakota State fans.

While Gronowski and other playmakers garner the headlines, McCormick is as popular as any of them with fans. He makes public appearances on behalf of the school, is one of the most quotable players on the team with the media, and never hesitates to say yes to requests for a selfie or an autograph.

"He just has such a huge passion for South Dakota State," said Addison Hirschman, McCormick's girlfriend and a former SDSU basketball player. "I was visiting a friend recently who just had a baby, and there was this little girl there. I couldn't get her to say hi to me, she was so shy. A minute later she was sitting on Mason's lap. Kids just gravitate to him. There are constantly little kids coming up to him after games and it's just so cute how this big meanie beating people up on the field is such a softie off of it."

Ben Fujan is a longtime Jacks fan and friend of the McCormick family. His 7-year-old son, Maverick, might be McCormick's biggest fan. He has a custom-made No. 60 jersey and his bed comforter is blue and yellow with the No. 60 on it.

"Mason's always had time for my boys," Fujan said. "He texted me a few weeks into the season to ask if I'd be at the game because he had something for Mav, and after the game he gave him a football he'd had signed by the whole team. On Mav's birthday he texted me to wish him a happy birthday and that made his day. You go on the field after a game and everybody's trying to get a piece of him and I'm sure he gets sick of it but he sure doesn't let on. He just kind of goes out of his way to make people around him feel good."

When the season ended, McCormick wasn't on many draft boards. But he was invited to the East-West Shrine Bowl, where he turned heads competing against other draft hopefuls. Then came an invite to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, where McCormick officially broke out as a pro prospect. McCormick ran a 5.08 40-yard dash and his overall Relative Athletic Score ranked as the 10th best by a guard out of more than 1,400 competitors since 1987. He then did 32 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at SDSU Pro Day.

Suddenly every draft expert and analyst had McCormick climbing their big boards.

"I always knew he was gonna run well," Olson said. "I told scouts, no matter what you think of his film — and I think it's great — he's gonna run really well. They're all like, yeah, sure, whatever. And then Mason crushes (the Combine) and was actually a little disappointed with it. He didn't surprise me. What has surprised me is how fast things have changed from the end of the season until now. He was like a sixth or seventh round guy and then they watch him run around in his underwear and now he's a day two guy."

Indeed, McCormick has been projected as high as the second round. Some analysts have him as the first FCS player off the board. Others project him to go on Saturday (rounds four to seven). He and Greenfield — who's been projected between the fourth and seventh rounds — will be the first offensive lineman in SDSU's Division I era to be drafted. Adam Timmerman, who played in the Division II era, was the last Jacks O-lineman drafted, in the seventh round in 1995.

In recent weeks McCormick has had individual workouts with multiple teams, some in Brookings and others which he traveled to. He even had dinner with new Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh.

McCormick has taken it all in stride.

"You've got to be chill and level-headed to handle something like this and that's just how he is all the time," Hirschman said. "His calm demeanor has been really good for me. He's very driven but he never gets too high or too low and I think that's a big reason he's been so successful."

McCormick took reps at guard, center and tackle early in his career at SDSU, but only ever played guard in games. Several NFL teams are interested in him as a center, and his coaches have little doubt he can do that. He took on many of those responsibilities for the Jacks.

"He basically ran the show for us for two years as a left guard," Olson said. "He makes the calls, he flipped protections, he made IDs in the run game. Traditionally that's the center's job but that was really his role for the last two years. He's the smartest offensive lineman I've ever coached. He's in the building so much I'd have to tell him, dude, go home. He's a football junkie. However long he plays in the NFL I can't see him not coaching when he's done."

A lifelong Cowboys fan — Stacker says he has a hilarious video on his phone of McCormick giving an impassioned speech defending Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott — McCormick says he'll be happy wherever he ends up. And all of his coaches are certain he's going to be a hit with whatever team picks him.

He's mean. He's nice. He's confident. He's smart. He's a winner.

"He'll have times, especially in the NFL, where he loses a rep," Eck said. "But it's the confidence he has in himself that he'll go fix it. When things aren't going well he's not gonna point fingers. He's gonna look at what he can do better and do that. Nobody will outwork him. He'll eventually be a starter and whichever team he ends up with will be happy to have him."

It would've seemed far-fetched on that day 15 years ago when a young McCormick was smacked to tears in his football debut. And if someone had tried to console Lee McCormick on that day that his son quit basketball by telling him an NFL career was on the horizon he wouldn't have believed it. But Mason knew what he was doing all along. And he's going to keep on doing it, right down to being the meanest SOB on the field and the friendliest guy in town off of it.

"I'm gonna be who I am because that's what got me here," he said. "Whoever drafts me is getting someone who's gonna work extremely hard and come in with a consistent mindset every single day. No matter how I'm feeling, I'm gonna go in there and work the same every day at a high level. I'm gonna be a great teammate and do whatever's necessary to be successful."