×

Defense focused on creating turnovers

  • Junior Lee Moses (3) played safety last season but has moved to corner this year. recorder file photo



For The Recorder
Monday, August 21, 2017

AMHERST — The three missed opportunities still bother UMass football coach Mark Whipple almost a year later.

In last year’s season opener against Florida, the Minuteman forced three fumbles. Problem was that the Gators gobbled up all three.

Any of the three might have been momentum-changers during a game in which UMass was a heavy underdog yet stayed close through three quarters before losing 24-7.

It set the tone for a season characterized by the Minutemen struggling to get takeaways and the momentum that comes with them. UMass forced 20 fumbles, recovering only 11 of them, and had just four interceptions.

Forcing turnovers has been a focus for the defense as it prepares for the 2017 season, which begins Saturday at 6 p.m. against Hawaii at McGuirk Stadium.

“That’s where the big plays are. Defense impacts a game more than offense. A takeaway is better than a big touchdown pass. It deflates (an opponent) and energizes you and gives you confidence,” Whipple said. “We’ve dropped some the past couple years. We had the ball on the ground three times at Florida and didn’t come up with it. We have to start getting those. We’re getting it out. Now we have to secure the ball.”

New UMass defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham was at Western Michigan in 2016, when his Broncos intercepted 15 passes and recovered 11 of 18 fumbles. Both in the spring and the preseason the Minutemen have worked on taking the ball away.

“We really stress it. If practice is any indication, we’ve stripped the running backs a lot. We make a point of it,” he said. “So far I’m pleased with the number of takeaways that we got. It’s something they think about. They’ve done a good job.”

UMass senior linebacker Steve Casali said he thought the Minutemen would be better at rising to the moment.

“This summer we really matured as a team. I think that will help us make those big-time plays in big-time moments. When the opportunity presents itself, I feel like we will make that play,” he said. “The biggest difference is we have a lot more confidence. A lot of guys have a lot more games under their belt. It’s all about confidence. If we have that, we’ll make those plays.”

Senior Tedrick Lowery, who’ll play the linebacker/safety hybrid spot, said getting turnovers early would give the unit a lift.

“It would help out a lot. It would be a major booster for the team. For the defense especially,” he continued. “It would give us more confidence as well. Coming out playing against Hawaii, if we get a turnover, an interception, a forced fumble and the energy just translates through the whole team.”

The following is a look at the defense broken down by position:

Defensive line

Starting: The front will be UMass’ most veteran group with three seniors and a junior slotted to start. Da’Sean Downey moves from linebacker and will join junior Joe Previte, at defensive end, while Ali Ali-Musa and Sha-Ki Holines will play inside.

Reserves: Sophomore D’Shan Harley and senior Rod Jones Jr. will be on the ends, while redshirt freshman Charly Timite, a camp standout, and sophomore Mario Patton will see action inside.

Neither Chinedu Ogbonna nor Jake Byczko were on the two-deep UMass released Monday, but both true freshman could push for time if the coaching staff doesn’t redshirt them.

Linebacker

Starting: Casali and Towson transfer Bryton Barr, a junior, will be joined by Lowery, who’ll lineup in different spot depending on the situation.

Reserves: Senior Colbert Calhoun, who made eight starts last year in the Minutemen’s three-four alignment will see regular action again. Jarell Addo, who will back up Lowery, and Jeremy Rodriguez both have a chance to emerge as impact players as juniors.

If true freshman Cole McCubrey doesn’t redshirt, he could be in the mix to play as well.

Safety

Starting: JUCO transfer Tyler Hayes gets the starting nod at free safety alongside senior Jesse Montiero, who’ll play strong safety.

Reserves: Junior Zeke Edmonds, who redshirted last year, returns to back up Hayes, while sophomore Bakhari Goodson is behind Montiero.

Canadian true freshman Tyris Lebeau is a candidate to push for time.

Cornerback

Starting: Isaiah Rodgers showed some standout potential last year as a true freshman, while junior Lee Moses, who played safety last year moves to corner.

Reserves: Senior Jackson Porter, who has started before gives the Minutemen an experienced third corner, while junior Charan Singh, who has played all over the defensive back field is on the depth chart at corner, but could lineup at safety at times as well.