At the end of every summer workout and practice in the grueling heat, Alabama A&M quarterback Deaunte Mason and his teammates closed with this: “SWAC Champs.”

For Mason, and his teammates, that is the ultimate goal. Instilling this motto, as Mason characterizes it, made A&M shake off the feeling of a 3-8 season in 2010.

The 21-year-old Mason’s journey to Huntsville, Ala., was a road he didn’t expect to travel.

Named Tennessee’s Mr. Football for Class 3A in 2008, Mason passed for 2,375 yards, rushed for 1,052 yards and scored 35 touchdowns as a senior at Pearl-Cohn High School, in Nashville, Tenn. His strong senior season garnered a scholarship from the University of Kentucky.

While it appeared Mason was living out most high school athletes’ dream to play in the dominant Southeastern Conference, shortly after his arrival he made a career altering decision.

“(Kentucky) brought in new talent, and they told me that I would be the best quarterback to transition to another position,” Mason said.

The Kentucky coaching staff wanted Mason to move to tight end. Certain that he wanted to be a collegiate quarterback, Mason transferred to Alabama A&M in the Southwestern Athletic Conference where he was closer to home and able to instantly compete for playing time at quarterback.

Cedric Pearl, Alabama A&M’s offensive coordinator since 2007, was with Mason every step of the way, and from the minute Mason joined the football program, Pearl noticed a humble player - not one who was cocky because he came from an SEC school.

Mason started seven games for the Bulldogs in 2009, applying what he learned from his short stint in Lexington, Ky., to his current situation.

“The speed of the game is different,” Mason recalled. “I was trying to get my teammates to play a little faster.”

Over time, Mason has developed into one of the more vocal players on the team, according to Pearl. Before last weekend’s 21-20 loss to Hampton, Mason gave a speech at Friday’s practice on the importance of starting the season right with a winning mentality.

“He tries to motivate the offense with a good day of practice,” Pearl said. “Everything starts with him.”

Although Mason said it was a little tough for him at first to grasp that he wasn’t at Kentucky anymore, he has relished his role as quarterback, leader and motivator for A&M.

“If my teammates need a play, they can count on me to make that play,” Mason said. “But I tell them that they don’t have to look for one person to come up with a play for us.”

In 2010, his second season at the helm, Mason passed for 911 yards and eight touchdowns but missed four games with a groin injury. During Mason’s absence the team struggled, winning just one game.

Mason had one of his best performances against Southern last September. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound dual threat beat Southern’s secondary to the tune of 221 yards and four touchdown passes as Alabama A&M cruised 34-14.

That’s a performance Mason hopes to duplicate this weekend at A.W. Mumford Stadium.

Equipped with a strong arm and quick feet, Mason certainly passes the eye test and has all the tools you look for in an elite quarterback. But it’s his presence alone that has set Mason above from the rest.

“Everyone feels more comfortable with him in there,” Pearl said. “He’s gotten comfortable with the offense, as opposed to his freshman year where he was going off natural ability, but now he understands the playbook and the leadership is coming through.”

As Mason continues to improve his game - while helping his teammates do the same - Mason and Co. could, after all, be yelling out “SWAC Champs” before too long.

Parking passes

Southern’s ticket office will be open at the Harding Blvd. location from noon-3 p.m. Saturday for fans needing to pick up parking passes only to the Alabama A&M game.

Tickets will not be sold at the Harding location during that time.

Fans looking to purchase Alabama A&M-Southern tickets on game day can purchase tickets only from the F.G. Clark Activity Center ticket booth (Harding Blvd side) beginning at 4 p.m. No parking passes will be sold on campus. For more information, contact the SU Ticket Office at (225) 771-3171.