Max Marcovitch: Stephen Spanellis told me to watch Ben Mason's high school tape. So I did.
The mystique of “Bench” Mason apparently knows no bounds.
On Sept. 19, Jay Harbaugh said of Mason, “He wants to bludgeon people and do it really fast and he’s relentless.”
Which, if you take that quote out of this context and extrapolate it to any other walk of life, is criminal. In football, it’s a compliment.
There are quite a few of those instances when it comes to Mason. He himself has said he plays with a “controlled rage.”
Asked after Michigan’s win against Nebraska — a game in which Mason scored three touchdowns — about the key to Mason’s success, Harbaugh said, “Intertia.” But maybe — just maybe — that’s not all he’s capable of. Maybe underneath the train of Ben Mason pain, there’s a different side to Mason and his skillset.
Dare I say, a softer side. (Please, no one tell him I wrote this. I value my physical well-being).
There have been signs so far this season that Mason’s skillset extends beyond what’s attainable in the weight room. Prior to this season, Mason totaled three carries for four yards. This year, he’s notched 16 carries for 41 yards and five touchdowns.
Saturday, in a highlight for the ages, Mason stunned fans and players alike, hurdling over Maryland defensive back Darnell Savage Jr. for a first down after catching a pass in the flat.
Count redshirt junior offensive lineman Stephen Spanellis among the few unsurprised. Last week, amid a discussion of Ben Mason, I asked Spanellis about Mason’s capability for an expanded role. Harbaugh had hinted it was possible the offense would find more ways to get Mason involved. Spanellis turned the question back at me.
Have you ever watched his high school film?
I can’t say I have.
Well, you should.
So I did.
In the process, it became clear that Ben Mason might be more than he’s shown in his career so far. You saw it with the hurdle; that’s not some athletic anomaly.
After the game, Devin Bush, Karan Higdon and other players shared that they’d never seen that from Mason.
Clearly, they didn’t dig too far.
On the second play of Mason’s senior year HUDL highlight tape, he comes across the formation, catches a pass in stride, turns up field and hurdles a defensive back, leaping into the end zone. Thirty seconds later, he mauled a poor little linebacker into submission because he is, after all, still Ben Mason.
Then he ventures into unrecognizable territory once again. Mason, lined up in the slot (!!!), fakes like he’s going to run to the flat, then bolts upfield, using his speed to run deep. He gains separation from the slot corner and hauls in a 40-yard reception.
The Ben Mason you’re familiar with returns intermittently, obliterating opposing defenders. By my count, the 3-minute, 53-second clip includes eight pancake blocks. That feels low.
Throughout my viewing experience, there are irresponsible cackles of joy at the expense of Mason’s opponents. His brutality borders insanity.
But then he runs a bubble screen, following blocks for a few yards, then stiff-arming linebackers and gaining the edge, and the mind wanders. The offense he ran in high school showed ample pre-snap motion, and Mason’s reel shows him receiving hand-offs going laterally and turning up field. He shows vision, an ability to cut back and find a hole.
He looks like… a running back.
This isn’t to say all of his high school feats will translate perfectly to Big Ten competition. I’m not that naive.
But there are morsels of intrigue in between the skills that already make Mason an All-America-caliber fullback. It’s there in his high school tape — as Stephen Spanellis so kindly instructed. Michigan’s offense should show more of that, beyond his sporadic fullback dives.
After Spanellis’ urge, he answered the question more thoroughly. He also offered an interesting comparison.
“I think he has the potential to be a Brandon Jacobs-esque player for us if we end up using him as a running back more.”
Yes, that’s former running back Brandon Jacobs, who ran for over 5,000 yards and scored 60 touchdowns in the NFL.
Chances are, Ben Mason will never be Brandon Jacobs. Chances are, he’ll never be anything even resembling a feature back at Michigan. But there’s a clear path for him to show more going forward, beyond bludgeoning people quickly and relentlessly.
I go to close the tab of the high school highlight reel and type out my thoughts. But then an option pops up to watch another.
Don’t mind if I do.