Steve George paused long enough to make it clear he rejected the very premise of the question.
George coached now-Michigan sophomore Ben Mason at Newtown High School. He granted Mason free reign to traverse the field at just about every position from wide receiver to running back, linebacker to defensive line. You name it, Mason did it. He watched Mason set the Connecticut state record for pick-sixes.
So, asked last November whether perhaps Mason would have thrived at linebacker in a different era — in a bygone time where downhill, run-stopping linebackers were in vogue — George made his feelings known. Time period be damned.
“I mean, I don’t even know in a different era,” George said. “I think this era would be no different.”
At the time, Mason was in the midst of a breakout campaign at fullback, and the idea that a different position might suit him better seemed outlandish. The sophomore had tallied six touchdowns in just five weeks. He was emerging as a reliable staple of an offense with otherwise maddening inconsistency. His persona defined by brute physicality was increasingly endearing him to fans, who regularly greeted his presence on the field with hymns of excitement. In his own way, Mason was emerging as a star.
Fast forward four months and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is talking about Mason moving around positions, not as any sort of demotion, but rather quite the opposite. Harbaugh said last week he wants to get Mason on the field for 60 to 70 plays per game, rather than the roughly 20 to 25 he played last season. To do so, he’ll be operating all over the field rather than primarily at fullback. In his answer, Harbaugh listed running back, fullback, 3-technique, linebacker, tight end and multiple special teams positions. And even that seemed more like an off-the-cuff hypothetical than any exhaustive list.
Spotting Mason on the field next year will seemingly become a task akin to solving a Where’s Waldo puzzle.
“One day he’s on defense, the next day he’s on offense, the next day he’ll go to defense and so on, and rotate,” Harbaugh said. “… It’ll be a lot on his plate, we’ll see how he can handle it. I think he’s going to handle it really well.”
Harbaugh isn’t alone in holding that sentiment. Ask anyone about Mason’s skill set and there is a remarkably consistent trope.
“You can put him anywhere and he can work his tail off,” said junior VIPER Khaleke Hudson. “Anywhere he ends up, I feel like he’ll be great for the team and do his position really well.”
New defensive line coach Shaun Nua added that Mason is “mentally tough, and (has) enough athletic ability to help us out on D-Line.”
According to Harbaugh, Mason “could be a little bit undersized as an inside 3-technique. But with his speed and quickness, I don’t know who’s going to stop him.”
Mason came to Michigan hoping to contribute as a linebacker in Don Brown’s aggressive scheme. In a conversation with The Daily last November, he attempted to list all the positions he had previously played and/or hoped to play — and struggled to do so.
And yet, the staff’s decision begs the question of whether plugging Mason all over the field truly maximizes his value, or simply alleviates some depth concerns. At 3-technique, for example, Michigan lost Lawrence Marshall, Bryan Mone and Aubrey Solomon, who, it should be noted, weigh an average of 48 pounds more than Mason. At linebacker, the Wolverines lost Devin Bush, and are looking to a relatively inexperienced group to fill the massive void.
All the while, there’s uncertainty as to how actively new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis will deploy a fullback relative to Mason’s prior two seasons on the team. Harbaugh voluntarily hinted the fullback position will de-emphasized — “used in short yardage and goal line situations predominantly” — as Gattis’ “Pro Spread” offense begins to take shape. Trying to shoehorn two-back sets into a spread offense creates a square-peg, round-hole predicament.
Perhaps trying to theorize specifically how Mason will fit into the equation next season belies the point Harbaugh is making. When Harbaugh first called Mason after the spring of 2016 to ask what he thought about a move to fullback, Mason’s response was unequivocal.
“I said that I would do anything for the team and that I was excited to do it,” Mason recalled. “… I wanted to come in and make an impact no matter how I could do it — and I was going to find a way no matter what to come in and make an impact.”
That, above all else, is what defines him.
And as everything else changes around Ben Mason’s unique Michigan career, it appears that never will.