Linebacking corps heart of Brown’s defense in 2007

If you’re fortunate enough to run past the defensive line of the Massachusetts football team, you’re at the mercy of linebackers Jason Hatchell and Charles Walker.

And that’s rarely a good thing for an opposing running back.

The prolific duo patrol the middle of the field for UMass coach Don Brown and anchor a defensive unit that lost several key players to graduation following its run to the national championship game in 2006.

“They are guys who have played a lot of football for us, and have a great understanding of what we’re trying to get done,” Brown said. “They’re both excellent athletes. Charles is like a strong safety playing middle linebacker and Jason is one of the strongest players in our conference.”

If the Minutemen hope to reach a similar plateau this season, they’ll need the pair of senior co-captain linebackers to help lead a younger, yet experienced, defensive core in 2007.

It’s something that Brown is confident they will be able to do.

“They are very team-oriented,” he said. “They bring that divine package and veteran presence along with excellent athleticism. The only thing that [teammates] can draw from those guys are very, very positive.”

The third starting linebacker, George Byrd, is one testament to that fact.

“It’s real good,” Byrd said about playing alongside the defensive captains. “I don’t have to worry about much. They fill all the gaps, and they help me with my technique a lot. The coaches aren’t worried about me as much, so I can play football how I want to.

“I look up to them. Everyone else on the team looks up to them,” he added.

Byrd has excelled to begin the season – accumulating 10 tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss and two pass deflections in the pair of UMass victories. He recorded 32 tackles all of last season in 12 games, including three starts.

“Well they certainly give him a role model to look at and guys to emulate on how they go about doing their business and preparation,” Brown said, referring to the impact that his defensive captains have on Byrd and the other linebackers.

Byrd had four takedowns last weekend against Colgate, helping shutdown star running back Jordan Scott in the second half. But the main culprits in stuffing Scott at the line of scrimmage were the usual suspects – Hatchell and Walker.

Walker paced the Minuteman defense in that contest with 10 tackles, and added a big fumble recovery after Hatchell helped safety Jeromy Miles knock the ball loose on a Scott carry at the UMass 1-yard line. The Raiders, trailing 28-10 at that time, couldn’t recover from the turnover as the Minutemen took the game, 35-17.

“We just kind of manned up at the goal line,” Hatchell said. “[Walker] did a great job out there. Week in and week out he always does well. He just filled his lane and stepped up and made the play.”

Hatchell left Hamilton, N.Y., with six tackles, a rare outing in which he failed to lead the team. He’s held at least a share for the team-lead in tackles in 17 of his last 28 games.

The 6-foot, 240 pound linebacker from Mullica Hill, N.J., is rated the second-best linebacker in the FCS by The Sports Network and is gunning to become the second UMass linebacker to lead the team in tackles for three-consecutive seasons since 1978. He’s off to a good start with 16 in two games, but trails his teammate in the middle by one.

The 6-foot-1, 230 pound Walker shares the single-game school record for most tackles with 23 (against Delaware in 2004) and was an Atlantic 10 Second-Team performer last year.

Hatchell’s 134 tackles ranked second in the A-10 last season, trailing only Akeem Jordan of James Madison by six. The UMass duo combined for 265 tackles – 44 more than any other pair of teammates in the conference.

Along with being team captains, Hatchell and Walker have additional responsibilities this season – predominantly trying to maintain a defense that has consistently ranked atop the CAA. That job hasn’t been made any easier with the loss of 2006 defensive playmakers James Ihedigbo, Brandon Smith, John Hatchell, Brad Anderson and Tracy Belton.

Along with defensive end David Burris, safety Jeromy Miles and cornerback Courtney Robinson – Hatchell and Walker are the two most responsible to fill that void.

Brown was hesitant when asked where he would rank the pair of linebackers to others in the country, but there are no two he’d rather have to help lead his defense this season.

“I think that remains to be seen as we move forward,” he said. “But let’s just put it this way, I wouldn’t trade them for anyone in the country.”

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]