Ann Arbor — Even his fellow Michigan football teammates think Ben Mason is more about football than anyone else.
Mason, with his intimidating mohawk and physique, is preparing for his junior season at a new position. He was a fullback last season and now — although running the ball isn’t completely ruled out — he has moved to defensive tackle.
Wherever he plays, though, Mason looks the part.
“When you classify a football player, you look up a football player, I’m pretty sure Ben Mason’s face is coming up in any Google search you do,” defensive tackle Carlo Kemp said recently. “Talk about a guy that just ... football player.
“Guy you plug him here, he’s gonna learn it, he’s gonna play it, and he’s gonna be good at it. And just having him just brings a whole new energy. And having a real physical guy that we’ve seen at fullback for the last two seasons and now getting him on the good side of the football has really been fun just seeing him attack it just as he did when he was at fullback.”
During the spring when Mason was in the early stages of moving to tackle, offensive players said he would scream every time he’d come off the ball. They said he was a “scary” sight and center Cesar Ruiz was starting to wonder what he had done to anger him.
“It was so much yelling and grunting, I almost didn’t believe it,” Ruiz said in the spring. “I was like, ‘This dude’s really yelling at me right now.’”
New defensive line coach Shaun Nua confirmed this week that, yes, Mason is “still screaming.”
Mason plays with that kind of emotional edge wherever he is on the field. And Nua said that carries over in meetings, in the weight room, and in the football building.
“He changes the whole mindset of the room,” Nua said. “He is an aggressive-mindset guy. He is intense every time. Conversations are intense, practices are intense, drills are intense.”
It is that level of aggressiveness that has given Mason an assist as he makes the transition to a new position and adjusts to the nuances of playing tackle, like taking on double teams.
“From an aggression standpoint it was a natural fit,” left tackle Jon Runyan said. “It’s definitely going to take a little bit of an adjustment. He has adjusted well from moving from running back to D-line. You see him starting to hold his own in there. He was definitely a little shaky at first, but he’s big, strong in there. Just got to see if he can hold his ground against some double teams. I’m sure he will be able to.”
Mason said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh brought up the idea of the position switch during last season. He said he trusts Harbaugh’s instincts.
“Maybe he’s onto something,” Mason said he thought when he was considering the change. “Maybe this could be a position of my future. I was excited about it.”
The offensive players joked in the spring about seeing him onthe other side, and the defensive players said they were relieved they no longer had to deal with facing him. Mason threw himself into playing defensive tackle during spring practices.
“Spring was really my first time ever playing it,” Mason said. “Took a little bit to adjust, but now I’m feeling really comfortable. Back in the spring, thought I felt comfortable but having a whole summer to really hone in on my technique was really helpful. I’m reaping the benefits now and having a lot of fun.”
He said the biggest challenge was simply that he is playing something completely new.
“Any time you do something new, it’s going to be a challenge, a little bit of an adjustment period, but other than that, feel like I’m doing a good job,” he said. “I really like the guys on the defensive side of the ball.”
Mason also looks more the part. He is 6-foot-3 and was listed at 254 at the end of last season.
So how much weight has he gained?
“Depends,” Mason said, smiling. “When I run the ball, I weigh 220. When I play D-tackle I weigh 280. And nose tackle I weigh 300.”
A few minutes later, he laughed and offered a legitimate number.
“I’m really 270, 275,” he said, laughing. “Eating a lot of good things and working out a lot.”
He has a believer in Harbaugh, who has referred to him as “Bench Mason” because of his devotion to the weight room.
“I love just about everything he does,” Harbaugh said recently on the "Pardon My Take" podcast. “He attacks everything and anything. He can’t get enough. He wants to eat up everything. He’s up to 272. He looks amazing.”
Mason sets the tone on the team when it comes to weights and conditioning. Harbaugh refers to them as weight room “stalkers” and included freshman running back Zach Charbonnet in that group. Mason and Charbonnet, who had a surgical procedure on his knee and missed spring practice, have spent plenty of time working out together. When Charbonnet’s mother visited, they all went to dinner and she asked Mason what they do for fun.
“’Do you guys go to the movies? What do you do?’” Mason said she asked. “And I was like, ‘Pretty much we just work out.’ That’s the God’s honest truth. That’s what we do for fun.”
Defensive coordinator Don Brown said recently that Mason is “vastly improved.”
“As a former fullback, running back, tight end, whatever you want to call him, we put him into that (defensive tackle) mix, and we feel good about him,” Brown said.
Nua said Mason will “have a big role.”
That’s Mason’s intention. He has studied NFL tackles and pored over film of former Wolverine Maurice Hurst.
“I just try to be as quick as I can, powerful,” he said.
After a few minutes talking to Mason, it’s easy to understand why his teammates describe him as they do. They try to capture his intensity and focus in a few words, but that’s almost impossible. So maybe you won’t really see Ben Mason’s face if “football player” is searched, but that's how his teammates best describe him.
“That’s a huge compliment, and I really appreciate that,” Mason said when asked his reaction to how he’s described by teammates. “At the end of the day, what people say doesn’t really affect anything. At the end of the day, it’s just about producing on the field. That’s really all that matters in the game of football — you’ve got to produce. And anything, too. Work. Let’s say you’ve got to meet some goal. You’d better produce or they’re going to move on to the next guy.”