Darren Thellen has been there and done that for the Massachusetts football team throughout his five years on the squad.
The redshirt senior free safety has been a fixture of the UMass defense since being eligible to play in 2009. He has played in all 41 games that he has been able to play in, even starting some his freshman year and has led the secondary in total tackles in each of the last two seasons. He he has become arguably the Minutemen’s most productive defensive player and most respected leader.
None of it, however, may have been possible if he wasn’t thrown into the fire early and often during his freshman season. In addition to seeing action in all 11 games, he made his first career start just more than a month into his rookie season. And he didn’t waste his opportunity, as he finished the season eighth on the team in tackles as well as logging an interception.
Now, three years later, it’s all coming full circle for Thellen, who has become a veteran presence and leader on one of the youngest UMass teams in recent memory. This season, there are 42 freshmen or redshirt freshmen on the roster. Last week alone, seven freshmen made starts, including four on defense.
Many are making big contributions, which isn’t lost on Thellen, who was there once upon a time.
“It’s good to have the experience now, especially playing young,” Thellen said. “I know, me, half my first year was a little nervous playing, but once you’re out there and see what it’s like, then in your future and years to come you become that much more confident.”
Every week, it seems that a new freshman has been making an impact for the Minutemen.
On Oct. 20, the day he made headlines for making halftime Tweets, D’Metrius Williams made seven tackles and three pass breakups in a career game.
On a larger scale, linebacker Kassan Messiah has already made five starts and has the second most tackles on a defense that also includes contributions from fellow freshmen Randall Jette and Trey Dudley-Giles.
“It doesn’t matter what other people think of that freshman class, I love that group of guys,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “Most of them had multiple opportunities to go elsewhere and they all believed in what we’re doing and without seeing anything. They just bought in.
“I like the way that they practice, I like their passion for the game of football. These guys love to play football right now.”
Perhaps no one is taking advantage of that love right now more than defensive back Khary Bailey-Smith, who, keeping with the theme of a new freshman stepping up every week, forced a fumble, recovered two and almost returned one for a touchdown last week against Vanderbilt.
Like Thellen, Bailey-Smith had to wear off the nervousness that came with playing his first dose of college football. But after getting over that and adjusting to the sudden change of game speed, he has been one of the most promising players on a young defense. His teammates even call him a “young Thellen,” something Molnar is in agreement with.
“He’s smart, he’s athletic just like Darren is,” Molnar said.
It remains to be seen whether Bailey-Smith can fill Thellen’s shoes like Thellen did with Miles, but there’s no question that Bailey-Smith, like Thellen, hasn’t wasted his opportunity as a freshman. Much of the same can be said about the rest of the freshman class, which makes Molnar very excited for the future of his program.
“You hear, especially the young guys talking all the time, talking about how good we’re going to be,” Molnar said. “And it’s exciting to hear them saying the same things that we’re thinking.
“They all know if they can all stick together how good that group can be.”
Nick Speller still suspended
Molnar said after practice Tuesday that he’ll give offensive lineman Nick Speller, who has missed three games now due to academic-related issues, until Wednesday to clear everything up in order to be back for the team’s game at Northern Illinois this Saturday.
“I’m rooting for him to get his stuff done and to get himself in a position academically,” Molnar said. “Once he does that, he’s good to go.”
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.