The first thing you notice is how quick and fast he is. Mason ran track in high school and his 4 x 400 relay team twice finished third in state competition in Texas. Track speed is one thing. Football speed is more important for a burgeoning wide receiver/return man.
So the next thing Mason shows you is how well that speed translates to the field. Though he still needs to master the finer points of route-running, he has an impressive ability to change directions. His ability to cut and turn on an extra gear may have taken Wisconsin's defensive backs by surprise at the beginning of fall camp—they were often left trailing behind the 6-0, 180-pound freshman after he made a move.
Getting open is one part of playing receiver. So next, Mason puts his hands on display, catching everything in sight. It is like he has pillows for hands, the way the ball tends to land gently in his grasp. Mason has consistently made difficult catches look simple.
However, it is Mason's versatility in all aspects of the game that stands out most prominently. The skills are great, but what makes a freshman stand out, what makes him push for playing time among a plethora of similarly talented athletes, is how many areas in which he excels. It is a big reason why when it came time to divide the team into "scouts" and those "in the depth" Mason had to change numbers. It did not make sense for the freshman all-purpose player to share starting strong safety Ryan Aiello's number 7 jersey any longer. So Mason donned number 81 for the first time Wednesday morning.
Mason is a speedster, but he doesn't just fly down the field in the passing game. He has made difficult catches over the middle, along the sideline; short and quick passes as well as the stretch-the-field variety. He has also shown an uncanny ability to make people miss in the open field no matter how the ball reached his hands, and to get up field in a hurry.
None of this is new. Mason was a star at Forth Worth's Dunbar High School playing similarly all over the field. He was an all-purpose receiver, kick returner and a shut-down cornerback. He scored 17 touchdowns—11 receiving, four rushing and two on returns—in his prep career. He was considered one of the best prep players in the country last season in all aspects—receiver, corner, return man.
Coming out of high school Mason said he expected to contribute right away and Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez agreed.
"Ernest is a speed guy," Alvarez said last winter, as quoted in the Badger Nation Recruiting Yearbook. "He'll help us immediately in the return game. He'll bring something to the table as a receiver….He loves to play, has tremendous hands and again, he brings a lot of speed to the table."
Fast forward to fall camp.
There it is again. The speed. You notice it every practice. On a team that is remarkably sudden, Mason stands out.
It is the speed of the game, the pace of the game, and the constant energy involved that have made for the biggest transition for the star from Forth Worth.
"Tempo, tempo," Mason said. "High school, you know, that is on a lower level. This is college. This is on a higher level. In college the coaches are expecting a lot of you and you all have to give 100 percent every day when you come out here.
"There are a lot of players out here. We are all trying to compete as a team, work together."
Mason, though, has been picking it all up very well and standing out among the crowd of skill position players. As advertised, he has stepped right in and been a factor, especially as a return man, where he looks poised to take over either the kick or punt return duties at some point this season, perhaps assuming both positions, perhaps sooner, rather than later.
"Ernest really has natural soft hands," Alvarez said. "He catches punts and kickoffs well. He has tremendous speed. We are going to continue to work him. He will be one of the three punt return guys that we work and we want to see him live. He will be one of the two or three kickoff returners, the guys that we put in position to return the ball, not just one of the deep backs.
"We will work him into the offense some to use his speed. We definitely have some plans down the road for him in the kicking game."
That was a week ago.
Mason has received a lot of reps at both positions, as advertised. He is still No. 3 at punt returner, behind Jim Leonhard and Brandon Williams, but is No. 2 at kick returner, behind only Williams.
Leonhard and Williams, the respective incumbents at each positions, are exceptional returners, as good as anyone in the Big Ten and potentially the nation. Mason has been so impressive this fall, though, that the team has the luxury of working him in to the return positions, giving Williams and Leonhard the opportunity to focus on their duties as a receiver and free safety, respectively.
Mason is taking it all in stride and culling as much information from the veterans as possible.
"It is a little exciting but, you know, I need to learn from them," Mason said. "I am going to make mistakes. The main thing is that it really doesn't matter to me (if I play) as long as we win games.
"(Leonhard and Williams) help me out a lot. How to see where the ball is going, where it is going to drop. What to expect from the ball, where it is going to go. They have experience and I am just trying to learn from that."
Mason also feels that he is getting fantastic on-the-job training from the team's defensive backs, who he has gone up against day-after-day, sprint-after-sprint, full speed action for hour-after-hour.
"They are helping me out working every day," Mason said. "They are making me more confident in what I do and what coaches tell me to with how I have to run the routes. I'm just learning from what they do and reading them. Getting my route down and catching the ball."
So far, Mason has been a fast learner. He looks poised to jump right in as a returner and while the loaded receiving corps may preclude him from seeing the field much in that respect this season, the future is very, very bright.
"Ernest Mason has the chance to be a tremendous talent," receivers coach Henry Mason said. "He is very fast. As soon as he gets acclimated to the college game he has a chance to be a good player."
And this season?
"You can figure that one out," Henry Mason said. "We are not going to tell everyone what we are going to do, but you can put two and two together. The guy can run. We will use him in situations where we can take advantage of his feet."
The Badgers are loaded with superbly talented receivers this year and with players like Ernest Mason in the pipeline, that is not going to change any time soon.