Christian Birt lives to play on the football field.
The Massachusetts football team’s redshirt junior safety, who missed this year’s season-opener and saw limited action in the second game against Indiana due to an upper leg injury, is just glad to be back full-time for the Minutemen.
He can’t think of a better feeling to describe it.
“It’s like no other feeling,” Birt said. “I play this game to be on the field and it’s almost like it gives me energy to live to be on the field. There’s nothing better than to come back.”
For a defense that just gave up 63 points to a prolific Michigan offense, it’s hard to pick out the positives. But moving forward, when those positives do present themselves, Birt may just be the source of some of them.
In his first start since his injury on Saturday, Birt made the play of the day for a UMass team that struggled to keep pace with the No. 17 Wolverines.
Trailing 21-3 in the second quarter with Michigan back in possession, UMass was in dire need of a spark, and got it via the heads-up awareness of its returning safety.
Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson dropped back to pass, but failed to look off his intended receiver. Facing some pressure, Robinson let it go, but Birt was way ahead of him as he jumped the receiver’s route easily, picked it off and returned it untouched for the 32-yard touchdown.
While intercepting a pass for a touchdown against one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks would excite most players, Birt is more humbled. He was just happy to be able to get his hands on a football. He’s done it plenty of times in practice, but rarely in a game.
“Just catching the ball in general just gives me a little bit more confidence, just catching the ball and making plays,” said Birt, who also recorded seven tackles on Saturday. “It was nice to do it in the Big House against Denard Robinson, but just getting that one under my belt in a game really helps.”
Big plays like the one Birt made on Saturday don’t come around often either. And when they do, momentum shifts in an instant.
Senior free safety Darren Thellen, who was part of another big defensive play earlier this season that earned the top play on ESPN’s SportsCenter, said it’s those type of plays that can give instant life to the whole team.
“Whenever that happens, it’s a big motivation, a big momentum builder,” Thellen said. “So me, personally, playing the game, you’re much more hyped, much more ready to play. And that’s what we need. We need more people to make plays like that, and hopefully he can make a few more.”
The touchdown was a long time coming for Birt, who hadn’t scored one in his career before Saturday. While scoring touchdowns are certainly rare occurrences on defense, there’s no doubting that Birt has the capability of providing big plays for a defense that will have its hands full against high-powered Mid-American Conference passing offenses this season.
UMass coach Charley Molnar announced Wednesday after practice that Birt will be one of the Minutemen’s captains this Saturday when they play at Miami (Ohio) in the MAC opener. And all things considered, it seemed like the team’s unanimous choice – and a timely one – after Birt’s big return last week.
“One of the reasons I chose Christian is this: It’s just because he was knocked down, kind of started from the bottom, even this season, and has climbed his way to the top,” Molnar said. “And it’s just like our football team. We’ve been knocked down, we’ve been kind of kicked in the teeth, now we’re going to climb out just like Christian did.
“He’s a great example of perseverance, sticking to it,” he said. “He easily could have folded and chose not to. He decided to fight through it. And not only is he a starter, he’s a key contributor on our football team.”
Deion Walker emerging
Before the season, Molnar was optimistic about wide receiver Deion Walker’s chances to make a big impact in the passing game. Walker, who transferred this season from Notre Dame, has an extra year of eligibility, and was expected to be a leader on a young receiving corps.
Walker didn’t play in the Minutemen’s season-opener against Connecticut, but has been getting increased production and playing time since. He had a 24-yard catch against Indiana, then started against Michigan and hauled in four passes for 63 yards.
Molnar said he’ll get another start this Saturday.
“Deion now is becoming a regular guy in our offense, he’ll be a starter. And Deion just has to be consistent. He always could catch the ball, that’s never been an issue with Deion,” said Molnar, who coached Walker in his time with the Fighting Irish. “Just being consistent in his assignments, going hard every play, being locked in, those are things that Deion is starting to do the last two weeks.”
Molnar said wide receiver Marken Michel, who sat out last week with a bruised shoulder, is “questionable” for Saturday’s game against the RedHawks. Despite missing a game, Michel is still the leading receiver for UMass with eight receptions for 82 yards. He was limited in practice on Wednesday.
Left tackle Stephane Milhim, who had previously been wearing a boot on his sprained right ankle, was out of the boot on Wednesday. Molnar said he’ll give it another day of practice to see if he’s good to go for Saturday.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.