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Gung-ho Ben Mason embraces Michigan defensive role with a yippee ki-yay

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Ben Mason is making the switch from fullback to defensive tackle.

Ann Arbor — Michigan's Ben Mason has been called many things this spring practice.

Defensive coordinator Don Brown referred to him as an “animal.”

Defensive end Kwity Paye says he's a “beast” and “crazy.”

Tight end Sean McKeon referred to him as a “more muscular Chase” Winovich.

But it is tight end Nick Eubank’s description Mason likes best.

Mason, a fullback last season, is practicing this spring at running back, tight end, is doing some special teams and also learning to play defensive tackle. His teammates on offense and defense said every time he comes off the ball from the tackle position, he’s screaming.

“It’s a nightmare,” Eubanks said, laughing. “Like Bobby Boucher. It’s a scary sight.”

Remember Adam Sandler’s character, Bobby Boucher in “The Waterboy”? The 31-year-old Boucher is hired as a water boy by fictional South Central Louisiana State, and eventually channels his anger from being bullied to knocking out opposing players. He becomes a fearsome linebacker.

Mason said Friday night after practice "The Waterboy" is his favorite movie.

“Wow, that’s a great compliment,” Mason said after being told a teammate referred to him as Boucher. “One of my friends actually has a Bobby Boucher jersey, Matt Brown. I appreciate Bobby’s game a lot.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh delighted in discussing at the start of spring practice how many different roles Mason — sometimes referred to as “Bench” Mason by teammates and coaches — will be playing this fall in an effort to get him and his all-out playing style on the field as much possible. Mason said practices are split evenly between offense and defense and he changes positions after individual periods.

“He’s got a T-shirt that they switch him in,” running back Tru Wilson said Friday. “They cut a hole in the T-shirt so he can fit his helmet. I’ve seen him in the white jersey (on defense) during practice — I’d rather have him in the blue lead blocking.”

Mason speaks like a guy who wants to be on the field all the time. As in every hour of every day. He answers questions matter-of-factly and rarely wastes words.

He was asked if he was born for this role.

“I feel like," he said, pausing, "I was born to play football." Period.

When he revealed he has gained a bit of weight (he’s listed at 6-foot-3, 254 pounds), he was asked how much.

“I’m enough,” he said, pausing again. “And I’m fast enough to run the ball.”

He’s also got the mental makeup of a defensive player. After all, he started as a linebacker in ninth grade in Newtown, Conn., and didn’t play on offense until his final two years. He was Michigan’s lead fullback last season.

“Ben is like a defensive-minded player,” running backs coach Jay Harbaugh said. “That’s like his natural, come-out-of-the-womb (position), penetrating into the backfield and sacking people. That’s what he was born to do, just wreak havoc and smash people. But he has an offensive skill set more so than people would imagine. He catches the ball naturally. As a runner, he’s smooth and comfortable. It’s weird, it doesn’t take a whole lot of work for him to get into a groove offensively.”

It also doesn’t take a whole lot of work for him to transform into a screaming defensive tackle. It is difficult to describe the sound as he demonstrated Friday night, but just imagine a large man coming at you and yelling. He said it was initially not a conscious action.

“I come off the ball and it’s like “AAAAHHHHHHHHH!” he said. “When I first started doing it, I didn’t really notice. I’m an enthusiastic guy. I like football. I guess it’s a way for me to show that.”

Last week after a practice, Michigan center Cesar Ruiz said at that point he had only gone up against Mason a couple times in practice.

“But I remember the reps vividly because there was so much yelling and grunting and I almost didn’t believe it,” Ruiz said, smiling. “I was like, ‘He’s really yelling at me right now.’  He has so much strength that he wants to oppose upon you, you hear it. it’s completely a Ben Mason thing, him taking that against an offensive lineman. It’s a lot to handle if you’re not used to it. He’s not the tallest guy, (but) he’s fast, quick and strong for someone his size. I think it’s great we have him on both sides of the ball.”

Mason said he most enjoys facing Ruiz because “it’s fun” and very competitive. He said the two have gone against each other plenty this week.

Does he yell at Ruiz the whole time?

“Uh, yeah,” Mason said. “He keeps telling me I need to stop doing that.”

Mason was asked in January by the coaches if he would consider playing defense and he jumped at the chance. He has a high motor and wants to be on the field as much as possible. How much he'll play hasn’t yet been determined. But being on defense makes the world feel even more right to him.

“I’ve been a defensive player most of my life,” Mason said. “It’s good to be back on the defensive side of the ball.  Natural.”

Brown likes tough guys, and it is Mason’s toughness he believes overcomes his size disadvantage playing from the interior line. Speed, quickness and going all out, not to mention his screaming, are what define Mason and what make him a defensive line option.

“He’s an animal,” Brown said. “Really excited the coaches have let us have him to some degree. I would say that it would be against my better judgement that this guy could play on the defensive line inside. Freak of nature. He comes off the ball exceptionally well. We can play him at tight-end-side defensive end. We call it the anchor. Can’t play the open side, but he could play that 3 and there’s a lot less learning there. It’s on your mark, get set, and they’ve got to block you. We’ll see. He likes it. He’s a tough guy, and he can run.”

Paye, a defensive end, has been helping Mason with the transition to playing on the line.

“Ben Mason’s a beast, man,” Paye said. “When he comes off the ball, he comes off full head of steam taking guys on. He’s not afraid. You put him somewhere he’s going to give it 110 percent. That’s what I like about Ben. He goes hard every day. Ben’s crazy, man. Every time he comes off the ball, he’s screaming. He gives us that energy we need.”

UM open practice

When: Saturday, 2:15 p.m.

Where: Michigan Stadium

Admission: Free

Information: Gates 1, 2 and 10 will open at 1:30 p.m. Fans can sit on the east side of the stadium from Section 7 through Section 39.

UM spring game

When: Saturday, April 13, 5 p.m.  

Where: Michigan Stadium

Admission: Free

Information: Gates open at 4 p.m.

Twitter: @chengelis