Jonathan Hernandez shines in starting role
No Nelson? No problem.
Senior running back Tony Nelson, the preseason All-Conference, Walter Payton Award candidate is the work horse for the Massachusetts football team’s ground attack. On Saturday, he didn’t play a down.
Scratched from the lineup just hours before the game, Nelson was in pads on the sidelines for Sunday’s game against Stony Brook. Meanwhile, in the huddle with the rest of the starting offense was redshirt sophomore Jon Hernandez.
A backup so far at UMass, Hernandez was named the starter for the first time in his college career. He made the most of his start, carrying the ball 29 times for 146 yards rushing and three touchdowns against the Sea Wolves, en route to a 44-17 victory at McGuirk Stadium.
Also picking up the slack with Nelson out was redshirt freshman running back Cedric Gonnet and senior fullback Chris Zardas. Zardas’ skills proved handy in goal line situations, as he scored two of the team’s five rushing touchdowns on the day. Gonnet also contributed to the offensive attack, gaining 50 yards on seven carries.
“That was a game-time thing,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said. “We said, ‘let’s go with Jonny and Cedric and see what we can do with those guys, and Chris Zardas, and they responded tremendously and did a great job.”
Morris praised his team’s deep roster and the ability for players further down the depth chart to step into larger roles when called upon.
“That’s really been the testament to our team in the first four weeks has been that, guys stepping up when other guys are out,” Morris said. “We’ve had it at all positions. Our O-line’s been doing a great job, providing those guys an opportunity to get big plays and Jonny, he’s a hard-hitter and made a lot of yards on his own as well.”
So far this season, the Minutemen have had to adapt on the fly and adjust to injuries on the offensive line, the linebacking corps, the wide receiving corps and now to Nelson.
As a team, the Minutemen accumulated 241 total yards on the ground on 46 total carries Saturday. The successful ground game took pressure off quarterback Kyle Havens, who attempted a season-low 24 passes against Stony Brook.
The story of the night remained Hernandez, who shattered his previous career highs in carries, yards and touchdowns.
The night before the game, Nelson told Hernandez, his roommate, that he might be too dinged up to play the next day. Nelson had been questionable all week after experiencing what was officially listed as an “upper-body injury.” The switch, though, provided Hernandez an opportunity to be used as more than a speed back, a role he had been limited to in the past.
For the first time all season, the Minutemen surrendered a touchdown on their opponents’ opening drive, as the Seawolves had a strong early showing on Saturday.
The early score helped the SBU jump out to a 10-7 lead midway through the first quarter. But the Seawolves would only score once more in the game, and were shutout in the second half, as UMass’ defense clamped down as the game progressed.
“You always want to come out hot in the second half and we started off a little slow” sophomore linebacker Tyler Perry said. “Stony Brook came out of the gates ready to go. [We] just settled down, started playing our gaps, doing our assignments and playing as a whole unit.”
While the UMass offense had time to game plan around the loss of Nelson, the defense had to adapt quickly when a member of their squad was knocked out of the game. Senior linebacker Kurt Filler left the game in first half with an injury, as true freshman Perry McIntyre earned his first major playing time of his career.
Already hampered by the loss of star-studded linebacker Josh Jennings, who has been sidelined with back problems, the Minutemen’s linebacking corps had to adjust once more to a major loss.
“From the beginning, Perry’s been the guy that’s stepped in and contributed immediately on special teams and defense and has been playing more and more with Kurt at that outside backer spot and both guys are on all our special teams,” Morris said.
Nick O’Malley can be reached at email@example.com.