Mason Y’Barbo was in the midst of maybe his toughest battle of last season, doing what has made him an effective lineman for North Texas — fighting, scratching and clawing his way through a game against eventual national champion Alabama — when one of the nation’s elite players lit a fire under him.
Dont’a Hightower battled Y’Barbo all day and was leveled by him during the Crimson Tide’s 41-0 win.
“He said, ‘Good hit, little man,’” Y’Barbo said of Hightower, who now plays for the New England Patriots. “At the time, it made me angry, but when I looked back on it, I thought it was funny. That is something I won’t forget.”
Y’Barbo has gotten used to hearing those types of compliments and jabs during a career in which he has been forced to prove that he can play a lot bigger than he looks.
The sophomore has started every game since his freshman season at guard and will be back in the Mean Green’s starting lineup Saturday at Florida Atlantic (1-3, 0-1 Sun Belt) when UNT (1-3) will look to bounce back from a loss to Troy in its conference opener.
No one questions why Y’Barbo is a starter when it comes to his talent or his 312-pound frame.
It’s his height that stands out. Officially, Y’Barbo is listed at 6-2.
UNT head coach Dan McCarney ran through a list of compliments any offensive lineman would like to receive this week, talking about Y’Barbo’s toughness and tenacity and about what a great person he is off the field.
Only one question stopped McCarney cold.
When asked if Y’Barbo is really 6 feet tall, McCarney just smiled and said “No comment.”
Y’Barbo said he is somewhere between 6-0 and 6-1. He isn’t the shortest lineman on the team, at least not when it comes to the official roster.
When asked this week where he ranks, Y’Barbo said he is the shortest.
He might also be one of the best.
“He’s explosive, is violent on contact, is a finisher and plays with good pad level,” McCarney said. “It’s hard to get your center of gravity lower than his because of the way he is built.”
McCarney and Y’Barbo’s teammates say it’s his approach that makes him effective.
Offensive line coach Mike Simmonds gave Y’Barbo the nickname “Badger.” Y’Barbo said it stuck because his coaches and teammates see similarities between him and the small, feisty animal.
“He [Simmonds] had watched a video about badgers and talked about how they take down animals that are bigger than they are,” Y’Barbo said. “He watched a badger fight a bear. He said it reminded him of me. The nickname stuck.”
The badger’s attitude is one Y’Barbo knew he would have to adopt to be a successful offensive lineman after realizing at a young age that he wasn’t going to grow to be a prototypical 6-4, 320-pound interior lineman.
Y’Barbo was a standout offensive lineman for Sulphur Springs, a traditional East Texas power, and attracted the attention of several college coaches, including one who helped motivate him to prove that he could play on the college level.
“My height was a big reason I was overlooked,” Y’Barbo said. “A Kansas State coach straight up told me that he loved the way I played and my tenacity but that I’m too short for Kansas State and too short to play in the Big 12.”
Y’Barbo started for UNT in a loss to Kansas State earlier this year, when the Mean Green hung with the Wildcats into the final quarter before falling 35-21.
UNT’s offensive line was expected to be one of its biggest assets this season and has lived up to expectations, partly because of Y’Barbo.
UNT is averaging 191.0 rushing yards a game and has allowed only three sacks on the year, despite facing a pair of top-10 teams in LSU and Kansas State.
“He’s undersized, but he makes up for it with his determination and drive,” UNT quarterback Derek Thompson said of Y’Barbo. “He wants to be the best offensive lineman on the field. When we run behind No. 57, we know it’s going to be a positive play.”
Y’Barbo also has fit in off the field.
“He’s a great young man with a great sense of humor,” McCarney said. “He’s one of those guys who makes us want to do what we do in college football. It does not get any better than that kid.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .