Berry College wide receiver and NFL hopeful Mason Kinsey may have helped himself the most of any player in attendance at the East-West Shrine Bowl. The Division III star has seen an improbable rise over the past week, impressing evaluators and draft pundits alike with stellar play in St. Pete.

This is the story of Berry College wide receiver Mason Kinsey, one of the biggest small-school sleepers in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft.

The Beginning

Mason Kinsey has always been a big fish in a small pond.

Growing up in Demorest, a small town in Habersham County, Ga. with a population of just over 2,000, Kinsey quickly made a name for himself at a young age. He started playing football at seven years old, starring as a running back for a Rec Ball team coached by his father, Shane, until his eighth grade season — a year that would ultimately prove to be Kinsey’s first encounter with adversity.

Disheartened by a position change and lack of playing time, Kinsey nearly moved on from football altogether to pursue basketball; the game he grew to love as a seven-year-old was no longer enjoyable. It wasn’t until he received advice from a childhood friend that he reconsidered his decision.

Kinsey refers to Tavarres King as his “big brother”. In fact, Kinsey is quick to credit the former University of Georgia and Denver Broncos wide receiver for helping him develop his game — and redirect his course. “Tavarres actually talked to my mom,” Kinsey recalled. “My mom was like, ‘Hey, will you reach out to him and convince him to give it one more try?'”

Kinsey’s ninth grade football coach saw immense potential in the Habersham County star, but felt a position switch to wide receiver would be in his best interest for long-term success. He was so confident about the transition, that he told Kinsey to give it two weeks, and if he wasn’t satisfied, he could quit. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I worked with Tavarres in the offseason, and kind of fell in love with the whole process of receiver,” Kinsey recalled. “I could catch the ball; that wasn’t necessarily an issue for me, but just learning how to run a route. All my stuff had been really one cut and go.”

Kinsey didn’t experience much team success playing at Habersham Central High School in Mt. Airy, Ga., winning just three games in four years, but his transition to wide receiver was rather seamless. Though his freshman season was largely spent learning the finer nuances of his new position, Kinsey lettered as a sophomore and became an impact player on varsity over his final three seasons. He finished his high school career as a two-time All-Region selection and the second-leading receiver in school history.

Berry College

Despite a decorated three years of production against some of the top talent in the state of Georgia, Kinsey was lightly recruited coming out of Habersham High School. His first official offer would come from Mercer University (Macon, Ga.), but the Division I program ultimately decided to pull his scholarship for a junior college transfer, and wanted to make Kinsey a preferred walk-on. He visited Kennesaw State, Gardner Webb, Shorter, and a handful of NAIA schools as well.

Kinsey’s final visit went to the only Division III program that he had any interest in: Berry College (Rome, Ga.). Berry’s positive culture and overwhelming support staff made it an easy decision for Kinsey — who even referred to Berry head coach Tony Kunczewski as his “dad away from home” — but it was another opportunity that the school offered that sealed the deal:

“I ended up getting on a work scholarship program there,” Kinsey explained. “I worked 20 hours a week in the spring and the fall, and I worked 40 hours a week in the summer, Monday through Friday. So, that’s kind of how I paid for school.”

While it was evident that Kinsey was the most talented wide receiver on the team, it took the 5-foot-9, 175-pound pass catcher a season to adjust to the collegiate level. He played in eight games during his freshman season, finishing with nine receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown.

After an offseason that consisted primarily of working his job and training for his upcoming season with close friend and mentor Tavarres King, Kinsey would take the college football world by storm as a sophomore. The electric wideout amassed 77 receptions for 1,245 yards and 17 touchdowns. He set new program records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns in a season. He was also given All-Region first-team and first-team All-SAA honors for his efforts.

“We knew right away we were getting a steal,” Kunczewski reflected. “We knew we were facing an uphill battle with some scholarship schools, and through God’s grace and for us, it worked out that some of those things fell through and he landed in our lap. We were very fortunate to get him.”

Kinsey continued his SAA dominance as an ascending junior, compiling 52 receptions for 776 yards and 16 touchdowns. He once again earned first-team All-SAA honors. While he already held numerous school records, it wasn’t until the offseason leading into his senior season that he realized he had a legitimate chance to play at the next level. The University of West Georgia held a junior day in the spring of 2019, with the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in attendance, and invited Kinsey to take part.

“I remember it was pouring down raining for like two weeks in Georgia, and the field was flooded,” Kinsey recalled. “We took the Wonderlic test, arm length, height, weight, and filled out a bunch of forms. The dudes at West Georgia were like, ‘I’m not gonna run, it’s pouring down rain outside.’ And I’m like, ‘Well shoot, I don’t know if I’m ever gonna get this opportunity again.’ I’m already undersized — I think they put me at 5’10”, 191 — and I’m coming from a Division III school.”

When Kinsey asked the West Georgia staff if he could still run the 40-yard dash, they agreed under one condition — only if he could run under a 4.6.

“I said yes,” Kinsey said. “But I honestly had no idea.”

After a couple of phone calls, the event was moved to Carrollton High School. They had an indoor facility, and Kinsey could safely run his 40 there. Upon their arrival, they learned that the indoor facility wasn’t ready, however, so Kinsey opted to run his 40 outside in the rain.

“It was like 45 degrees outside and drizzling rain, and I ran anyway,” Kinsey said. “I ran a 4.47.”

Now on NFL radars, Kinsey intensified his training in preparation for his final go-around. The budding star pass catcher would drive to Chip Smith Performance Systems in Norcross, Ga., nearly a two hour drive from Rome, two or three times a week for extra training. Kinsey’s drive and work ethic knew no bounds, as he juggled school, football, and his 20-hour-a-week job for an opportunity to train with NFL players in Norcross.

“Mason is just so competitive and has such a great work ethic,” Kunczewski remarked. “That’s probably his biggest difference.”

With 24 NFL teams making the pilgrimage to Rome to catch a glimpse of Kinsey throughout his senior season, the record-setting wide receiver did not disappoint. Kinsey closed out his four-year stint with 65 catches for 1,221 yards and 16 touchdowns, totaling an SAA-record 3,343 receiving yards and 50 touchdowns for his career. Berry College accumulated a 39-6 record over Kinsey’s four years, to go along with four consecutive Conference Championships.

Given Kinsey’s propensity to break a game open with a single catch, teams attempted to adjust during his junior season — and he drew an increase of double teams as a result. The Berry offensive coaching staff, however, countered with a chess move of their own, which ultimately proved to be instrumental in Kinsey’s development:

“It’s easier to play two over one coverage when he’s on the outside,” Kunczewski acknowledged. “It’s a little bit harder when you start motioning him, and moving him around, and lining him in the slot. I think he’s really evolved as a receiver, because we tried to move him in positions to be able to get him the football.”

Though the next few months figure to be a whirlwind for the small school prospect, Kinsey made significant strides as a receiver during his time in Rome, and possesses enough innate qualities to experience sustained success at the next level:

“I think that his competitiveness in games to block somebody really hard and to put them on their back, or to run underneath the football and break a tackle and go score really set him apart for us,” said Berry College wide receivers coach Daniel Hill. “Those types of things allow him to be able to have that kind of competitive drive that NFL players need in order to be successful every week.”

East-West Shrine Bowl

One of the most cherished accolades a college senior can receive is an invite to the prestigious East-West Shrine Bowl. When coach Kunczewski sent Kinsey a text message in late November to stop by the office, the receiver was hopeful of what he might find.

“I was with my girlfriend at the time,” Kinsey recalled. “I was like, ‘We gotta go the office right now.’ I drove over there and saw the folder on the desk, and was like, ‘No way.’ I’m used to people overlooking me, or people doubting me, or people not thinking I’m good enough. I didn’t always have a lot of people that believed in me, and I kind of got accustomed to it. When I saw the invite on the table, I thought, ‘Someone believes in me.'”

Merely days after finishing his finals, Kinsey began training for the Shrine Bowl at Chip Smith Performance Systems. It a matter of weeks, he would be competing against some of the premier talent in college football.

From the moment he stepped onto the practice field at Tropicana Field, Kinsey proved that he belonged. A far cry from the 5-foot-9, 175-pound 18-year-old that first stepped foot on Berry’s campus four years ago, Kinsey took the field as a thickly built, 5-foot-10, 198-pound NFL prospect.

The Division III standout had a big week in St. Pete and was virtually uncoverable during 1-on-1 periods. Kinsey impressed as a savvy route runner who was tremendously smooth in and out of breaks, and he did a great job using his leverage to his advantage. Though he was rarely asked to run many vertical routes throughout the week, mostly settling for short and intermediate patterns, Kinsey had a knack for keeping defensive backs guessing. He set them up by making every route look the same. 

While he dominated at the Division III level with exceptional speed and athleticism, Kinsey knew he would have to alter his approach against the superior competition in St. Pete.

“I just knew at the top of the routes, I had to be somewhat crafty and understand the leverage of what I’m facing,” Kinsey explained. “And if I can, give him a jab here, a jab there at the top of the route. I like to think I’m somewhat of a stronger receiver, so if I get a lot of pressure or a lot of lean from a [defensive back] at the top of a route, I can give him a little ‘chicken wing’ and get a lot of separation without it necessarily being a push off.”

Though he drew praise from several of the NFL evaluators on hand, Kinsey refuses to rest on his laurels. He returned to his apartment in Atlanta soon after the Shrine Bowl and immediately resumed his training with King. He already has his goals in mind for pro day, with a mid-4.4 40-yard dash and 20 repetitions on the bench press in his sights.

“Since I could walk, I always had a football in my hand,” Kinsey said. “Football’s kind of been my life for a really long time. I knew I wanted to play professional football, it was a dream of mine since I was a little kid.”

Though he was a big fish in a little pond for most of his life, he now finds himself as a small fish in a big pond. After knowing all that he has overcome, however, no one should underestimate the NFL potential of Mason Kinsey.