UMass football embracing change in defense under Tom Masella
The Massachusetts football team’s recent memories of playing in a 3-4 base defense are as forgettable as they come.
The Minutemen started the 2013 season in the 3-4 and suffered heavily in the ground game, as they allowed an average of 323 rushing yards in a trio of lopsided defeats. One of those games was a 45-0 loss at Wisconsin in which three different Badgers rushed for over 100 yards on an easily exposed UMass defense.
The Minutemen switched to a 4-3 in Week 4 against Vanderbilt and the results were promising. Opponents ran for about 180 yards per game over UMass’ last nine contests and the games became more competitive.
Just months later, the 3-4 appears to be making a comeback in Amherst. But with new personnel under defensive coordinator Tom Masella, who also led UMass coach Mark Whipple’s defense in 2002 and 2003, the Minutemen are seeking a better outcome this time.
“It’s definitely been an experience trying to learn the 3-4. It’s definitely different,” linebacker Stanley Andre said. “There’s a variation of things that are going on. We’re blitzing a lot more, moving the line a lot more, the safeties are incorporated a lot more and the linebackers are even moving around so it’s great for us as a team because we like to move.”
Masella’s defense promises to be more aggressive than the one coached by Phil Elmassian last season. Last year, the Minutemen were more of a “match team,” according to Masella, with a reliance on zone coverage and little movement up front with bigger defensive linemen in Galen Clemons and Kevin Byrne.
Midway through spring camp 2014, UMass is now learning to move around more at all three levels, blitz more frequently and use its athleticism to make plays. This style of play should be more suitable for a team lacking in size up front with Peter Angeh and Enock Asante taking over at the defensive ends outside Daniel Maynes this spring, and more agile and active linebackers in Trey Seals and Kassan Messiah.
“I think we’re doing different things coverage-wise. Not that what they were doing wasn’t good things, it’s just my comfort level, what I’m more comfortable calling and running,” Masella said of last year’s defense in comparison to his. “So they’ve had to break some habits that are a little different from zone principles in the back end. And up front we’re moving a lot more. We have to based on the personnel we have.
“That’s a little different than last year where they were in a 4-3 and pretty much a static front and they had some kids up front that could stay in there and take a beating and deliver a beating,” Masella added. “Now, we’re a little smaller than we’ve been up front. We have to move them and come from different angles.”
Andre said the biggest difference between Masella’s 3-4 defense and last year’s has been its simplicity. He said Masella knows how to balance being aggressive and conservative with his calls, and the players “know what their assignments are,” something he said is a result of better communication amongst teammates.
“Just the communication on all fronts,” Andre said. “The safeties are communicating, the linebackers are communicating, the defensive linemen are communicating. I’d definitely say communication has made things a lot simpler and easier for the whole defense as a unit.”
The run defense should also get some reinforcements from the defensive backs when necessary. Masella, who is also the defensive backs coach, added the Cover 3 to the standard man and Cover 2 coverage schemes to have an extra safety roll down inside to make up for the lack of run supporters, as well as align the corners in a better position to read the play before and after the snap.
“We used to shuffle, but now we backpedal more so we can see the receiver better and the backfield, whereas we couldn’t see it (last year) because we could only play a certain way,” cornerback Trey Dudley-Giles said. “(Masella’s) giving us more freedom to play so now we feel more comfortable in the backfield in the secondary.”
Dudley-Giles called Masella a “player’s coach” and said the changes to scheme and technique was something the team needed.
Masella has been equally pleased with what he’s seen from his players so far.
“It’s a process,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go, but they’re working hard and each day they become more familiar with me and what we’re trying to do.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.