October 30, 2014

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Minutemen anxious to display aggressive defense

Photo by Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian

Photo by Maria Uminski/Daily Collegian


Through two days of Massachusetts football training camp, there’s an air of excitement permeating from most members of the unit’s defense.

The Minutemen want to be known as an aggressive bunch. They also want it known that they intend to play every snap at 100 miles per hour, that an exotic blitz package could come from any angle and any part of the field and that they’ll carry themselves with an attitude.

Basically, pick the exact opposite of any defensive attribute used to describe the team from a season ago.

“That’s our nature,” defensive coordinator Tom Masella said. “We want to blitz from a lot of different angles and we want to come from a lot of different angles. Last year, I don’t think they did a lot of things schematically as far as different people blitzing. It was just a different defense entirely than now.”

At the crux of the defensive overhaul is a complete change in philosophy. Gone is the base 4-3 defense from a season ago and in comes a base 3-4 scheme that’s designed to have the flexibility to showcase multiple looks. Linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox said the team felt “trapped” a season ago as it constantly showcased the same basic front on most plays which didn’t utilize much of the Minutemen’s talent. Opposing coaches easily gameplanned for it and the result was a Minutemen defense which allowed 33 points per game, 215.5 yards per game rushing and 23 rushing touchdowns.

“I read an article this summer where an assistant (Mid-American Conference) coach talked about our defense and said it seemed like we were in the same defense every single time,” Santos-Knox said.

“This year, they’re not going to see that. They’re going to see us in multiple defenses, different formations, just flying around. Last year were just stuck in one defense…we weren’t able to play free.”

While UMass may have been stuck by the end of the season, the Minutemen actually opened 2013 in a base 3-4 defense which lasted three games. UMass allowed 975 rushing yards through those three games en route to an 0-3 record in which it was outscored 106-21 before switching back to the 4-3 before week four against Vanderbilt.

The Minutemen spent all of the spring and summer re-adjusting to the 3-4, something Masella said was more of a re-installation process than a steep learning curve. The coaching staff took the basic principles of the system and re-taught them in June and July. And while the team didn’t truly practice any of the new schemes, it went through the learning process together. The goal was to allow the team to retain more information earlier so the team could react quicker and play with more speed and comfort in the fall.

Santos-Knox, who played a similar defense in high school, said he’s enjoying the learning process.

“I like it a lot more than the last defense,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to play so you want to learn, it’s a lot more fun.”

Masella believes the team is embracing the intricacies of the new system.

“They’ve enjoyed different parts of it and kids are doing different things and you don’t want them to get bored,” he said. “You want to challenge them in different ways and certainly, for now, they’re excited about that and hopefully they’re still excited in week 11 and 12.”

UMass coach Mark Whipple echoed his defensive coordinator’s sentiments. The goal is to engage the players – the upgraded facilities at the team’s brand new performance center are helping – while also figuring out which players fit different aspects of the defense.

“We try to challenge them mentally,” Whipple said. “Not just lining up with one thing, (we’re) also finding out which guys fit in certain packages and have those prepared for certain games.”

For now, the goal is to make sure every player is comfortable enough with their assignments so they can begin to play at a higher, faster level. That will create early success, something Masella believes is critical for his unit to sustain a strong year.

“I think when you have success it feeds,” he said. “So we have to have success early and build on that.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli

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