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Bailey becoming more comfortable in new role

FootBDuring the Massachusetts football team’s first winter workout, redshirt junior Ke’Mon Bailey approached coach Kevin Morris with a unique proposition.

He wanted to play defense.

Bailey, who had been a wide receiver up until that point in his college career, was looking to switch to cornerback, a position that had been vacated after All-Americans Sean Smalls and Courtney Robinson graduated.

“He told me at first that if they needed me to play receiver, I had to come back, but to try it out anyway, but to not count on [playing defense],” Bailey said of Morris’ reaction.

Through the first three games, though, Morris and the No. 15 Minutemen have had to count on Bailey. Since winning the job during training camp, Bailey has excelled at his new position. With 12 tackles (six solo), three pass deflections and a fumble recovery through three games, Bailey has hit the ground running in his first year on the defensive side of the ball.

Such productivity, though, was far from unexpected for Morris.

“We were looking for guys to help out the team [in] any way they can,” Morris said. “Ke’Mon’s always been a team guy, and he stepped right up into the role, and I feel he’s done a tremendous job.”

Bailey played defensive back in high school in addition to wide receiver, but in his transition at the college level, he had to virtually relearn the position.

“I took some from it,” Bailey said about what he kept from his high school play. “But I started basically from scratch. I went back home, had to train real hard with my trainer to get back into the transition of backpedalling, coming out of breaks and change in direction.”

Switching sides in the middle of his career brought some challenges for Bailey. In addition to the new personnel, system and terminology, he had to deal with a complete shift in mechanics.

“My biggest challenge would have to be the change in direction,” Bailey said. “From running full speed forward, to trying to stop somebody backpedalling; that had to be the hardest part.”

Bailey, though, did have an advantage coming from the outside of the ball. Coming naturally from the perspective of the wide receiver, Bailey knows how other receivers think, and tries to use that to his advantage.

“It gave me, I think, an advantage because I use the knowledge of a receiver, the way I ran my routes to how receivers run their routes now, and I can basically predict what they’re going to do before they do it.”

The quick transition and unexpected success of Bailey has been a recurring theme for the Minutemen all season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

With Smalls and Robinson graduating and preseason All-Conference linebacker Josh Jennings sidelined with an injury, UMass entered the season without many of its defensive leaders. The Minutemen are also without defensive guru Don Brown as head coach, and the defense, which was a disappointment in 2008, was expected to be mediocre in 2009.

“They’ve performed extremely well,” Morris said. “We’re not letting up points. And a lot of that is up front, then you get to your backers and then that back end’s got to hold up too. You saw us last week with a more throwing offense and [we] did a pretty good job last Saturday holding a real strong quarterback down.”

With unexpected contributions from players like Bailey, the UMass defense has played far beyond its expectations. Individually, though, Bailey, along with senior Corey Davis on the other side of the field, has had to live up to the enormous reputations of their predecessors.

          During his senior season, Smalls was projected as a legitimate NFL prospect before a major knee injury derailed his professional career. Robinson, meanwhile, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles and spent time with them in camp.     

“To replace those guys, to play at that high a level, it’s not easy,” Morris said. “Guys [have] got to step up, you know, Corey Davis and Ke’Mon have done a great job, and we haven’t missed a beat defensively.”

So while the defense and its inexperienced starters may surprise the rest of the conference, Morris and his team know what they are capable of all along: A group of players ready to contribute, including Bailey, regardless of which side of the ball he plays on.

Nick O’Malley can be reached at nomalley@student.umass.edu.

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