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UMass football looks to add more size, depth on defensive side heading into 2016

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(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

Massachusetts football coach Mark Whipple needed only three words to describe his thoughts on adding more size and depth to the defensive unit.

“Big is good,” Whipple said Tuesday after UMass’ second practice of the season.

“We just felt like we needed to (add more size and depth) – that’s why we wore down some (last year),” Whipple added.

After losing eight starters from a year ago, the Minutemen enter the 2016 campaign with a mixture of returning veterans, junior-college transfers and a mixture of underclassmen who are expected to slide into starting roles the first week of the season.

“We have much more depth than we’ve ever had in the first two years,” defensive coordinator Tom Masella said. “That’s good because hopefully we’ll play better in the second half and forth quarters of games because (our players) aren’t playing as many plays.”

In 2015, UMass ranked 104th in total defense, and allowed an average of 31.4 points per game. However, it was the lack of depth both in the front-seven and secondary that plagued the Minutemen’s defense during the stretch of games – most notably in their 25-23 loss against Temple after taking a late lead with less than two minutes remaining.

Peter Angeh, Sha-Ki Holines, Ali Ali-Musa and Da’Sean Downey currently headline the defensive front, while Shane Huber, Steve Casali and Teddy Lowery are penciled in as starters at linebacker. Lowery is expected to play the same linebacker-safety hybrid that Joe Colton played last year.

“We have a real cohesive unit of inside linebackers between (Lowery), myself and (Casali),” Huber said. “We’ve kind of fallen into different roles and moving around and things of that nature.”

Huber added: “Teddy, I give him a lot of props because he’s coming in here from junior college, a whole new system, and he’s really fit the mold in a great way. On top of that Steve is just a guy who’s a lunch-pail guy who’s a talented and athletic football player. He has a great football mind. As a unit we’ve really be able to excel at a high level.”

After a brief stint at wide receiver last season, Jackson Porter has returned to the starting cornerback spot with James Allen (formerly Oliphant) across from him. Lee Moses and Khary Bailey-Smith, who received a medical redshirt after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in 2015, are currently playing with the first-team at safety.

“I’m feeling great. Hopefully it stays that way if I take care of my body as best as I can,” Bailey-Smith said. “I think the second or third week of spring I was ready to get back out there. They wouldn’t let me for safety precautions, obviously. I’ve been waiting for camp and I’m glad to be back out on the field. Everyone else has accepted me with open arms.”

Outside of the starters, both Whipple and Masella believe some of the JUCO transfers and freshmen will see the field instantly because of their size, speed and ability to learn the playbook quickly.

The two coaches spoke highly of defensive linemen Ali-Muasa, Davone Hall, Dom Cipriani and Rod Jones as big bodies who are expected to join the rotation this upcoming season. Colbert Calhoun, a transfer from San Bernardino Valley College, will get reps at linebacker.

“We felt like we had to get some bigger guys. Guys that could play 10, 15 snaps. You watch Florida and you have to have a roster because they mix so many guys in and we’ve never been able to do that,” Whipple said. “We’re trying to get to that point and that can help us early.”

“We’re doing a lot more walkthroughs. We are giving the young guys a lot more reps than we ever have,” Masella said on acclimating the younger players. “They’ll be ready when they’re ready. You’ll see when they are ready.”

Andrew Cyr can be reached at arcyr@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.

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