A 105th-straight start for Mason Cole? First, he'll have to win an NFL job

Mason Cole started every game of his Michigan career. Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Mason Cole hesitated for a second when he thought about how many practices he missed in four years at the University of Michigan.

He really had to think about it.

Was it two? Or was it three?

The Arizona Cardinals' third-round pick finally settled on three and quickly pointed out that they all came in a row during Week 9 of his junior season -- or, as he referred to it, Michigan State Week.

For most players, a missed practice is a minor footnote in their career. But for Cole, they're among the headlines because of their rarity. Missing games, however, was even rarer.

Cole, an offensive lineman, hasn't missed a game in eight years. That's 104 consecutive starts dating back to his freshman year of high school at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and continuing through his career at Michigan.

"It says a lot about a player that goes to the University of Michigan and is the only true freshman to ever start on the offensive line and has started 51 consecutive games," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said.

"Says a lot about his durability and toughness. We love his versatility."

Cole doesn't have a secret recipe that's helped him play in every game since he was 14.

"Honestly, I think a big part of it is luck," Cole said. "There's a lot of luck that plays into it. I've just been lucky enough not to have gotten rolled up on the wrong way. But, just taking care of your body, doing the little things, staying in the training room, staying in the weight room in season and just doing all those little things throughout the whole season to keep your body as fresh as can be."

It was impossible for Cole to avoid nicks, dings and bruises during his time at Michigan. That's just the nature of football. But Cole said he never suffered a serious injury, playing through all kinds of ailments while deciphering just how much pain he was in.

"There's a difference between being hurt and having pain," Cole said. "And, for me, that was the biggest thing. Am I in pain or am I actually hurt? And, for me, I was never actually hurt. You can push through pain and that was always my goal."

Cole making it through college without an injury was "unbelievable," said Tim Drevno, Michigan's offensive line coach and offensive coordinator the past three seasons and now the running backs coach at USC.

While Cole's physical conditioning played a major factor in his durability, Drevno said there was another reason why Cole never missed a start: his mindset.

"He's got a mindset with unbelievable work ethic and toughness and competiveness that won't be denied," Drevno said. "He's got the DNA within him, just a competitive edge.

"It probably comes from a young age. Something. You don't find guys like that."

Which is why Drevno, despite being concerned Cole would miss the Michigan State game in 2016 because he was sick, believed Cole would ultimately play.

But it was close.

Cole couldn't get cleared that week because doctors didn't know if he was still contagious. He came by the coaches' offices after missing the second practice of the week to tell Drevno he'd practice the next day. When Cole missed a third-straight day of practice, the possibility of his streak ending was starting to become a real possibility.

Drevno made sure every meeting that week was taped and then sent to Cole so he could learn the installations, but Drevno was never concerned about Cole missing practices.

"He needs practice reps just to keep refining his techniques," Drevno said. "But in terms of mentally and things, it's not a big deal. He can go play a game right away. It's not a big deal at all."

Cole was cleared to play by the end of the week and went through the walk-through on Friday, the day before the game. The next day, Cole started his 33rd-straight game at Michigan.

"He played a great game," Drevno said. "I remember coming in at halftime. He got two IVs at halftime. I remember talking to him on the table, making adjustments because he wasn't feeling good and we needed to get more fluids in him."

Drevno had been impressed with Cole since meeting him for the first time in 2015, but watching him play that week against Michigan State reaffirmed Drevno's belief in Cole's durability.

"He'll play at all costs," Drevno said.

"He's just always been there. He's like the mailman -- always delivering. He's always doing it. You don't even think about it. 'Hey, there's Mason, there he is, sitting right there.' He's always practicing, competing, playing hard, leading."

Cole was able to keep his streak alive in college through two position changes.

He enrolled at Michigan a semester early and, with the help of injuries on the offensive line, secured the starting left tackle job during spring practice before his freshman year began.

He never looked back.

He played left tackle as a freshman and sophomore, was moved to center as a junior and then moved back to left tackle as a senior.

Cole took the moves in stride. He just kept on starting.

"When they moved me to center, it was always to get the best five offensive linemen on the field," Cole said. "I never had a problem with it because I knew if I was going to switch positions that was going to make the whole group better."

That versatility helped attract the Cardinals' attention, but his primary position in the NFL has yet to be set. He feels like his natural position is somewhere on the interior of the line, either at center or guard.

Drevno thinks Cole would make a "great guard" but feels he could also be an NFL-caliber center.

Drevno, who coached with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh every season since 2004 except 2014, which Drevno spent at USC, before resigning from Michigan in February, compared Cole to Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro because of their shared intelligence, toughness, durability, athleticism and competitiveness.

As Cole begins his NFL career, however, his streak might be in jeopardy.

He can play every position across the line, but the Cardinals don't have an opening that he can slide ride into. As it stands now, Arizona's starting offensive line will be D.J. Humphries at left tackle, Mike Iupati at left guard, A.Q. Shipley at center, Justin Pugh at right guard and Andre Smith at right tackle. Cole could find himself competing for Shipley's spot or for a backup role on the active roster.

To play in his 105th straight game, Cole would have to unseat a current starter. But who would that be? That's yet to be determined. Cole thinks his toughest obstacle to getting on the field this season will be learning the playbook. He's already somewhat accustomed to the NFL ways after playing for Harbaugh the past three years.

"The way [Harbaugh] runs his program, the way we practiced, the way he runs camp, the hours we spent in meeting rooms, all that stuff off the field really helps you prepare for what's coming at the next level." Cole said.