In Alan Clinton’s eyes, Mason Graham is a natural.
But Clinton’s claim isn’t based on football. As the head wrestling coach at Servite High School in Los Angeles, Clinton coached Graham throughout his four years on Servite’s varsity wrestling team.
Graham, a freshman defensive tackle on the Michigan football team, arrived in Ann Arbor as a four-star recruit and quickly established himself as a key cog in the Wolverines’ defense. While Graham may be a natural on the gridiron, he’s equally talented on the wrestling mat, too.
“If he hadn’t left and gone to Michigan (as an early enrollee), he probably would have got just as many wrestling offers as he did football offers,” Clinton told The Daily. “That’s how good he was.”
Clinton isn’t being hyperbolic; as a heavyweight, Graham won two Trinity League championships. Clinton says that a number of schools — ranging from Stanford to California Bakersfield — called expressing interest in Graham. Throughout the process, Clinton and Graham both remained upfront about Graham’s desire to play college football. Only Division II Colorado Mesa floated the idea of Graham competing in both sports.
Graham persisted with wrestling even amidst burgeoning football dreams; he trained for both sports year-round. In an age of athletics increasingly defined by specialization, Graham was a refreshing outlier.
But there is a blueprint here for Graham’s duality, particularly in the Big Ten. A few years ago, a viral video circulated of Tyler Linderbaum and Tristan Wirfs — two former All-American offensive linemen at Iowa and eventual first-round picks in the NFL — wrestling each other in a high school state championship match. The clip became the perfect microcosm of the Hawkeyes’ program: A brand of football defined by brute force and physicality. It also highlighted the intersection between the two sports.
Wrestling and football aren’t perfect matches. But, Clinton argues, they are mutually beneficial for athletes.
“If you’re gonna put up on your board who you’re gonna recruit, and you got a guy that’s a football player and a state wrestler versus a guy who’s just a football player, most of the time you’re gonna go with the wrestler,” Clinton said. “They’re gonna get more out of him. He’s gonna be more prepared, especially down in the trenches.”
Much like Linderbaum and Wirfs before him, Graham fits the mold. It’s clear that his wrestling background is helping him be an immediate contributor at Michigan.
At Servite, there is ample overlap between wrestling and football. Clinton is an ex-football coach himself, and Troy Tomas, Servite’s varsity football coach is an avid wrestling fan.
“He’ll tell his football players, ‘If you’re number two, number three in our ladder, you better go see coach Clinton because it’s going to make you move up to number one’, ” Clinton said.
There’s a reason for that, and it stems from developing a mental fortitude, one requisite in football but often difficult to craft, especially amongst younger players.
In wrestling — amid isolated combat — mental toughness is a binary matter of winning or losing.
“There’s nobody to rely on,” Clinton said. “You don’t have any offensive or defensive lineman there that you can share the blame with. It’s you against the world. Your mental toughness is exceptionally strong, which then makes it easy going into the football situation.”
Football is predicated on communication. The most successful units — perhaps the defensive line or even the entire defense — are the ones that play together as one.
And yet, at its core, football consists of countless one-on-one bouts.
“That kind of stuff doesn’t bother him,” Clinton said. “If you watch him play football, especially here as a freshman at Michigan, all the surrounding things that go on a lot of the times that people struggle with — well, it’s easy for him to either block those out or maintain his focus.”
Teammates have noticed a difference in play style, too, repeatedly praising Graham for his maturity.
“He’s a dog,” senior edge rusher Mike Morris said. “Him and (freshman defensive lineman) Derrick Moore are just freaks. They look like they’ve been here for years, they act like they’ve been here for years and they play like they’ve been here for years. It feels like they weren’t in high school — like they were at a JUCO somewhere or they transferred in from somewhere. They’re just grown men.”
That’s rarified air for a freshman tasked with battling 22 and 23-year-olds in the trenches. Four years of college also means four years in a Division I weight room under the careful watch of an elite strength and conditioning staff, forming added muscle and strength. Those are advantages that 19-year-olds don’t have at their disposal.
Wrestling has, in part, allowed Graham to compensate for that difference.
Both linemen and wrestlers emphasize two core tenets: angles and leverage. Expertise in one often lends itself to exploits in the other.
“What’s the difference between a Double-A takedown and a tackle? Not much,” Clinton mused. “A takedown makes you a better tackler in the long run, working on angles and adjusting your weight.”
With experience in both of those areas, Graham’s tackling is quite sound.
“Technique wise, he’s right there,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “That helps him in block destruction. … He’s just a tough, physical young man that learns well and plays with a really good technique.”
Graham’s ascension reached its apex two weeks ago against Iowa. He earned his first start against a stout Hawkeyes’ front, which includes Connor Colby, Iowa’s top lineman and a former wrestler himself. It was, in a way, like Graham was back on the mat.
In the contest, he notched four tackles and a sack, both career-best marks. Afterwards, he notched defensive freshman of the game honors, an important honor just five games into his college career.
Had it not been for Graham’s wrestling experience, it’s hard to say whether that success would have materialized so quickly.
“He could be the poster child for football, he could be the poster child for wrestling,” Clinton said.
Perhaps he can be the newest poster child for flourishing, even after pursuing both.