Interview With Former South Carolina LT Mason Zandi

Sep 17, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Brandon McIlwain (11) and offensive lineman Mason Zandi (74) celebrate his score against the East Carolina Piratesduring the first quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 17, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Brandon McIlwain (11) and offensive lineman Mason Zandi (74) celebrate his score against the East Carolina Piratesduring the first quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /

JBB’s own Seth Murphy sat down to interview former South Carolina left tackle Mason Zandi, a prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft.

I recently sat down with former South Carolina left tackle Mason Zandi as he prepares for the upcoming NFL draft. Zandi started every game at left tackle for the Gamecocks last season and has started 24 games total while seeing action in 49 games since 2013. The Oakland Raiders could use some help at tackle, and Zandi is a potential sleeper target for them.

For every segment following the first question and answer, I’ll be SM and Mason Zandi will be MZ.

Seth Murphy: I want to just start off by asking about the communication that you have had with NFL teams so far.

Mason Zandi: Yeah, so I talked to the Panthers this Friday. I went up and had a workout, and it went extremely well. I have talked to the Chargers, the Colts, the Browns. I talked to the Raiders; I have talked to a bunch of different teams.

I was at the College Gridiron Showcase in Texas in the early parts of January, but no one is showing their hands just yet. It is still early and a lot feedback that I have heard is that I am a late-round guy, but since my pro day and since my workout I feel like my draft stock has gone up.

SM: Yeah I agree, since then I have definitely seen your name floating around out there more. So with this being a Raiders blog, I just want to talk about how you would fit in with the Raiders organization. Are you familiar with the history of the Raiders, particularly at the offensive line?

There has been some Hall of Fame guys like Gene Upshaw and Art Shell, and the current Raiders offensive line is carrying on that tradition. So I want to ask, if you were to become a Raider, can you speak to what that would mean to you?

MZ: That would be a tremendous honor to join an organization that [wants] men that are notoriously hard-nosed and just nasty individuals that want to get after and punish the guy across from them. Growing up I was a 49ers fan, and right across the bay I watched plenty of Raider games and I have always envied the crowd, the fan base. I thought there was a lot of heart and soul in that organization and you know you have something good when your fans turn out every Sunday and do the amazing things that they do.

SM: Good, I am glad to hear that! So as the Raiders current offensive line stands, there is obviously a Pro Bowler at left tackle in Donald Penn, but he is getting up there in age and it is probably time to start grooming a backup for him.

There will be an active competition for the right tackle position. Marshall Newhouse and Austin Howard are established veterans but that is a job that is going to be up for grabs. So if you were to go to Oakland, how would you feel about possibly competing for that job as well as getting prepared to be a left tackle of the future?

MZ: In any situation you always want to be in a position where you can compete for a starting job, and ultimately that is what every player wants is to be able to compete for a starting job. The ability to go to the Raiders and have the opportunity to compete for that job is tremendous, and it would be really motivating for myself knowing that there is a job that is up for grabs, and ultimately coming to a team and finding my role on that team is what I think is really important.

Whether that job is starting at right tackle or right guard or starting even left guard or wherever it might be, just learning and experiencing and understanding the game even more from another perspective and from a higher learning stand point would be just tremendous.

SM: So as far as the Raiders go, if you were to land on the team you would face the prospective of having to face guys like Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Von Miller, not to mention Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin at practice. Is that something that you would be up for?

MZ: Well I began my career at South Carolina going against Jadeveon Clowney, and going against him when I was a freshman was definitely eye opening, and allowed me to mature faster at my position. Going against guys like that that I have watched for the past several years would do nothing but excite me. It would be awesome to get an opportunity to go against some of these superior athletes, some of these Pro Bowl guys and just be able to compete that’s what I am looking forward to — just being able to compete.

SM: Some guys would be intimidated by that but I think it’s cool that you see that as an opportunity to accelerate yourself on your career path.

MZ: Definitely, the more often and the sooner you go against the top guys in your league, it’s definitely going to better you at the end of the day.

SM: So I want to go back to your high school days for a little bit. You weren’t very highly touted as a recruit and you can correct me if this is wrong, but I believe Rivals had you as a two-star recruit. Being in that position, did you ever think that you’d have this opportunity today?

MZ: You’re right, I was a two star recruit, and I encourage everyone in the sports world to never look at those kinds of stats in a high school student because they can never measure effort and attitude. A saying that I learned from my coaches that I have adopted in my life is “A good attitude doesn’t guarantee you anything but a bad attitude does,” and if you go into work everyday and you give tremendous effort it is going to show up eventually.

I wasn’t highly talented and I wasn’t well-groomed coming out of high school but I had ambition and the [desire] to get better and to make those 1% changes. I made the decision for myself and my family to go to an organization that would ultimately contribute in my success, and to answer your question, I always dreamed about being in the position that I am in and I have always been determined to go after my dreams. So in a way, yeah, I did see myself here a long time ago.

SM: I am glad to hear that. Like you said, there are always guys that don’t necessarily get the stars that they should get, and you can’t measure how someone is going to work when they get into a program.

MZ: And I am not saying that I deserved more stars. I got what deserved and I am not going to sit here and be a prima donna by any means. You know it is what it is and you have to play the hand that you are dealt like it was the one you wanted.

SM: Absolutely. So you played some tight end too, right? So you got recruited as a TE/Tackle?

MZ: Right. I was recruited purely as a tackle and there was a need at blocking TE for our team, and like I said earlier, I just want to find a role, you know? And when I got here I was just like “what is my role what can I do how can I help my team?” and at the time it wasn’t playing tackle; it was playing TE in the run game.

Fortunately I was athletic enough to play that position and got some great experience. I got my first start at TE in college against Vanderbilt. It was a great experience and a great way to get my feet wet.

SM: So in my experience around football guys I have never met a tackle that didn’t tell his coach that he wanted to go out and catch some passes, but you clearly have the athletic ability to do that. So were you trying to get some plays drawn up to get some passes thrown your way?

MZ: We did have a play installed for me to go out for a route and catch a ball. We ran it against Tennessee. This was in 2013 and it worked perfectly. It was like a tackle over — he was split out to the left right on the number, I would come in at the right tackle spot and I would technically be the end-man on the line of scrimmage and no one would cover me up. I would be eligible to go out for a pass and everything went smoothly. I caught the ball and everything was ready to go, but as soon as I caught the ball, the whistle blew.

Apparently Tennessee called a time out because they were all mismatched. Had the play gone on I would have scored a touchdown, and here is a little extra kick for you — we would have gone up 9 points in that game, and we would have gone on to beat Tennessee that week. The next week, we went on to beat Missouri in double overtime and we would have won the SEC east and played for an SEC title.

SM: Those are some big ramifications from one timeout.

MZ: Yeah, coaches and players will tell you there are about three or four plays a game that determine a win or a loss. It’s the small details that count.

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SM: Absolutely. Even though it is cliche to say it, football is a game of inches and a game of seconds, and you see it all the time. So I want to know, from playing TE what skill do you think that helped you the most playing tackle?

MZ: At South Carolina we ran a lot of inside zone and that perspective from playing TE taught me how fast my feet need to be in position, because whether we like it or not, the defense isn’t going to line up in the exact position that we want them to. When we run a play and being able to adjust on the fly and being able to adjust to another man’s block, being able to go out there and being athletic enough to block the most superior athletes in the country.

SM: So you weren’t invited to the combine, is that right?

MZ: That’s right, I wasn’t.

SM: So as someone that is big and athletic, and you started at left tackle in the SEC, being someone that doesn’t get invited to the combine with that kind of resume, does that motivate you a little bit more and put a bit of a chip on your shoulder?

MZ: Well the facts show that 35% of the people that were invited to the combine and participated in those events weren’t actually selected in the NFL draft. But it is motivating that I wasn’t recognized as one of the better tackles on the country, and I don’t need to say “rah rah look at me”. I have put together the film and the resume, but no, ultimately all it comes down to is just getting the opportunity to play for an NFL team and to compete against some of these guys.

The [combine] would have been really nice and every kid grows up watching it on TV and wants to experience that, but unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity. And that’s okay, but we are still moving forward and we are still very excited with what the future has, and I can’t wait to get to work with an NFL team one day.

SM: Yeah that is a great outlook and it looks like that wasn’t too detrimental. I still see your name out there and you’re making strides out there. So I wanted to ask, what is a typical day like for an OL prospect as you prepare for this going forward.

MZ: So I tend to wake up pretty early in the morning, around 6:30am and I eat breakfast, go workout, get a workout in in the weight room, work on flexibility, being able to bend the hips, being able to bend is crucial for the position. Then lunch, then go back and see if you can do some on-field things — some kick sets, some lateral movements, some run blocking, hitting dummies, throwing hands making sure you have violent hands, and in the evening, have dinner.

When I can, something that I have been trying to do lately — in the past five years, I have missed a lot of birthdays, I have missed a lot of anniversaries, I have missed holidays, I missed weddings, so when I get time,  want to spend time with my family. This process is exciting and so just amazing to be in the position that I am in, but at the same time, I don’t want to forget where I came from and I want to go back to my roots and I want to see my family, and I want to spend some time with them as well.

SM: I think that is awesome, I think a lot times people forget that there is a person behind the face mask and you have to give up a lot when you go into that profession, so I think that that is awesome that you try to make time for your family.

MZ: You have to make time for the ones that love you because ultimately that’s how you got where you are.

SM: Absolutely. So you talked about bending and violent hands, what would you say that you are working the most to improve?

MZ: I really want to improve on playing the position overall, not just from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint, because ultimately you need to know what you are doing. You need to know what you are seeing, you need to know the terminology, and the plays don’t change but in transitioning to the NFL, and this is what I gathered from a lot of my old teammates that are playing.

It’s the language. Learning the language of the NFL, how certain things are called, what the name of certain things are and how to go through your progressions as a tackle. So I would like to improve my mental aspects of the game. I think that once you don’t have to think about what you are doing, it becomes a lot easier.

SM: So have teams expressed a technical or maybe a physical concern constructively that you have been trying to work on?

MZ: Well I go back and watch a lot of my own film. I try to correct just simple things that I do wrong. You know, I have watched each one of my games over and over and over again and just seeing “oh okay, I got beat on this play. Why did I get beat? Oh it’s because I didn’t take the proper step here”.

So let’s take that step 100 times so if you got beat on a pass set here, okay what did you get beat on? Maybe it’s because you kick too vertically and you cross yourself over, so let’s kick perfectly a thousand times, a hundred times, you know, just making those improvements.

SM: So would you say that you are more comfortable in, say, zone blocking compared to say man blocking schemes? Or vice versa, or do you feel like you are prepared to plug in wherever?

MZ: Yeah I feel like I can plug in wherever. Learning a system, learning a playbook is going to be a ginormous challenge. I consider myself well studied, but I am confident in my athletic ability that I can be plugged into a lot of blocking schemes and still be effective.

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SM: Okay, so kind of stepping away more from the football questions a little bit, I want to learn a little bit more about Mason. What are your plans for draft day?

MZ: You know, just being around my family, just being with the people that I love and regardless of the outcome we are going to celebrate something, whether it is the celebration of getting drafted or a celebration of being a free agent, or whether it be the celebration of a long process and seeing results. [I am] just going to be around my family and be extremely grateful and extremely proud of being in the position that we are in, and just being around them is what I am going to be doing.

SM: You have a degree in political science, is that right?

MZ: That’s right.

SM: So a lot of times, people say that football players like to take “easy” majors, and that wasn’t the case with you. Can you tell me about why you wanted to go into the field?

MZ: Well I tend to disagree (that student athletes pursue easy majors) — I know a lot of people like to speak from the experience of guys that go three and out or guys that leave college early, but a lot of my teammates chose majors that they were interested in. It’s not necessarily that it was easy or an easy course load, and being a football player you are a different person as is there is always something that is different about your mental makeup that differentiates you from a normal person.

So say that a football player is taking a normal course in terms of business or accounting or something of that nature — it doesn’t necessarily correlate because the individual is different. I think that that is a little misconstrued, knowing from my perspective my teammates from what I can speak from, they chose what they were interested in. Not what was easier.

SM: Right, I tend to agree. I have been around programs and like you said, I definitely agree there are guys that major in biology. I just wanted to know why you specifically wanted to pursue political science.

MZ: Well, me personally, there was a point in time where I wanted to be an elected official and I thought that using my platform with football to propel myself toward a political career was suitable and potentially possible. Granted I tend to work hard in everything that I do and fortunately enough for myself and my family, this football thing just might workout. So for the time being I decided to part ways with the political world and take on the NFL world. Political science is always something that has interested me though.

SM: Do you think maybe at some point, maybe after you retire, that there may be a senate seat in your future or something like that ?

MZ: Yeah, you never know. The political world changes so quickly and the political makeup of our country has already changed since I have graduated last May, so you never know. It could be a world that I want to get into, it could be a world that I would rather not, you just never know.

SM: I can totally see that. So what are your hobbies in the offseason? I know you said you like to spend a lot of time with your family, but beyond that?

MZ: I’m a big outdoorsman. I like to hunt, I like to fish, I like to spend time outside. I’m a busy body, I don’t like to sit around — I’m not a big couch potato.

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SM: How’s the hunting in South Carolina?

MZ: It’s good. I believe it is turkey season right now, but I haven’t had the opportunity to get out there yet. But I have a little hidden gem of a fishing spot that I like to keep quiet from most people. I go over there about once a week, maybe every other week, and that’s Mason time, just time to relax. You have to have an outlet and if you have an outlet, make sure it’s healthy.

SM: Definitely you have to decompress. So a lot of times when athletes get their rookie contract they like to buy a house or a car for their mom or something. What do you think you will do with your first check?

MZ: I don’t know, I’m a penny pincher, I like to take care of my money. Myself and my family, we are blessed and we are certainly are in a great situation where we aren’t in need of a whole lot. We just want to see each other succeed, so if it means [I can] help my little niece or my little cousin and make their birthday a little special or something that would be something that I would be looking to do, but other than that I don’t like to spend a whole lot of money.

SM: So you might have seen that Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele took a vacation in New Zealand this offseason. wWhat would you say your dream vacation would be, what would that consist of?

MZ: There are a couple of places I’d like to visit. At night I like to watch the travel channel and the food network. II love to cook, but I watched a show on travel channel on Seoul, South Korea. It is beautiful, it’s so technologically advanced and it would be really neat to go there and just see that.

SM: Alright, well that was my last question, but to finish up, I just want to give you the floor so you can tell teams, executives, fans, whoever might be reading this, what can they expect from Mason if you land on their team?

MZ: Fans, GMs, Coaches, teammates, my family already knows this and my friends, if I am in your organization, I will do nothing but better your organization. I bring nothing but positive light and in an industry based on production, I intend to produce at the maximum level. I am a work hard, bring your hard hat to work kind of guy. I am just excited to get to work, I love the opportunity to compete, that’s what it is all about. I am just blessed to be in the position that I’m in right now. I am looking forward to the future.

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I want to extend a big thank you to Mason for sitting down with me and taking the time to talk. He is clearly a very intelligent and mature young man that will be great teammate wherever he goes.

Just Blog Baby wishes him the best of luck going forward wherever he ends up.