When Brendan Mahon was in high school, he was a heck of a lot bigger than the other kids.
His football teammates gave him a ton of grief because despite his size, he couldn’t grow a speck of facial hair when the rest of the players participated in “No Shave November.” Even the youngest on the team managed some patches of peach fuzz, but there was Mahon, bigger and wider than the rest of them, cheeks as smooth as a baby’s.
So his teammates nicknamed him “Big Baby,” and that stuck throughout his years in college at Penn State.
But now, Big Baby Mahon is in the NFL, competing well in Carolina Panthers training camp for the vacancy at left guard and even getting first- and second-team snaps at times.
Oh, and he’s got a beard now too. So he gets the last laugh.
The Panthers did not hesitate to throw him into the mix as training camp started. Coach Ron Rivera also didn’t hesitate to make clear what he’s looking for in Carolina’s next starting left guard.
“More so than anything else, it’s being very consistent,” Rivera said this week. “I know I’ve used that word a lot in the past as well, but I just think that’s probably the biggest thing. You can’t have a guy come out and make a lot of mistakes. You can’t have a guy who is going to be explosive one play and then be confused the next. You want a guy to be very, very consistent and then add the rest of the parts together.”
Playing guard is very different than playing tackle. The closer an offensive lineman is to the center, the faster everything moves. And a guard slipping up creates the most direct line to the quarterback. Technique matters enormously, as does a low center of gravity, a stout core and perfect feet.
The vacancy left by former undrafted free agent-turned-monster All-Pro Andrew Norwell, who went to Jacksonville in free agency, is a big one.
And the competition at left guard, which included second-year guard/tackle Taylor Moton, thinned a little following the patella dislocation and MCL tear suffered by starting right tackle Daryl Williams on Saturday.
So Mahon has an opportunity. Yet as an undrafted free agent himself, he knows he has a long road to being on the roster, and a lot of training camp left.
“I’m trying to take advantage of my opportunity and really hone in on my skills,” he said. “The thing that’s getting me going is that my back is against the wall. I don’t have some of the luxuries that the drafted guys do. I come out here every day and work hard, and try to be successful, put the pedal to the metal and play hard-nose football.”
He has been through adversity before. He was one of a handful of Penn State recruits who stuck around despite the sanctions levied against the university after the Jerry Sandusky scandal made international headlines in 2011.
Mahon and other young players on the team received an avalanche of verbal abuse from opposing teams and fan bases during games, as well as online, for continuing to be a part of the university. And on the field, Penn State’s offensive line pipelines were in tatters as many recruits ran the opposite direction in the wake of the scandal and NCAA sanctions. So Mahon had to develop quickly, with no immediate backup plan in sight.
He had to play just about every position on the offensive line, even switching from left to right tackle in the middle of games as Penn State’s line ranked among the worst in the country for two years.
And in 2016, Mahon suffered a leg injury. It was a long road to recovery for him, but he was fully cleared and posted a solid final season last fall, particularly as a run-blocker for first-round pick Saquon Barkley.
“(Mental toughness) comes with trial-and-error, and I didn’t learn until I made mistakes,” said Mahon. “Once I made the mistakes, I built from it. We built from it. From my redshirt freshman year to my sophomore year (and on), just building from our mistakes. Then it turned out that we really became successful.”
Looking for an edge
Mahon is often seen walking out of practice with coaches and assistants including run game coordinator John Matsko. He walks nearly sideways up the hill to the athletic facilities so that he can hear the coaches better as they rattle off tips and instructions. He asks question after question, hoping to find any edge he can.
“Really it’s just me trying to learn, working on some of my technique. That’s a big thing that I’m focusing on,” he said. “Coach Matsko, just really listening to everything he’s saying. He’s a great teacher and a great coach. ... Really just taking what he’s teaching us and trying to apply it to the field.”
Veteran Amini Silatolu is getting the lion’s share of first-team snaps at left guard. But Mahon has made an early impression on Rivera, who sent him into the huddle for the camp-opening “Oklahoma Drill” against rookie defensive tackle Kendrick Norton.
“He’s an interesting young man,” Rivera said. “He’s bright. He’s physical. He’s got a good set of tools. Of the young guys, he has stepped up so far. You have to find those young guys early and make sure they’re getting a little extra. Whatever it takes to help those guys along. Because guys like that can help you. And he’s done a nice job so far.”
But the head coach still plans to razz the Big Baby just a little. He’s still a rookie, after all, and carries All-Pro right guard Trai Turner’s pads out of practice.
“’Big Baby’? I hadn’t heard that yet,” laughed Rivera. “I can’t wait to talk to him about that one. That’s a good one.”