Freshman Kassan Messiah making most of opportunities

By Stephen Sellner

Jeff Bernstein/For the Collegian

Massachusetts defensive coordinator Phil Elmassian watched freshman linebacker Kassan Messiah hit a wall at the beginning of the first season of college football.

But most rookies do, said Elmassian, as the college game is totally different from high school. Elmassian even noticed Messiah’s confidence started to become a factor.

“Then I said, ‘OK, we’re gonna redshirt him,’” Elmassian said. “But he kept working. Each day, you see this confidence start growing.”

Messiah worked hard in his repetitions during practice so when the opportunity presented itself, he’d be ready to contribute. He listened closely to Elmassian, tried to absorb everything his coach was throwing at him and tried to emulate practice into game situations.

“I wanted to be out there,” Messiah said. “I was hungry to do it, so I just listened to what he said and I applied it.”

The opportunity that Messiah had been working towards finally arose in week four. UMass had just been torched by Michigan in a 63-13 blowout and sophomore linebacker Greg Hilliard had gone down with an injury, leaving Elmassian with the decision of who would fill in the spot and help spark the defense in its next game at Miami (Ohio).

He chose Messiah to start in Hilliard’s place.

“Might as well,” Elmassian said.

Messiah took the opportunity and ran with it. The rookie recorded 10 tackles, a sack and two tackles for a loss in his first collegiate start.

“I was hoping to come in and make an immediate impact,” Messiah said. “I mean, that’s what every freshman wants to do. They wanna come in and play right away, so that was my dream to do it and it’s coming true now.”

Since then, Messiah has continued to develop on the Minutemen defense, racking up 34 tackles over the past three games capped off by a 16-tackle (14 solo) effort against Bowling Green last Saturday.

UMass allowed only 282 yards against the Falcons, which is the unit’s best showing of the season and is nearly half as many yards as it allowed the game before to Western Michigan (551).

“(The defense is) on an upward trend right now, if you look at Saturday’s performance, and I think Kassan had something to do with that,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said. “He adds a lot of speed and athleticism to our defense. Though he’s inexperienced, he makes up for it in enthusiasm and effort.”

One of Messiah’s biggest supporters has been senior linebacker Perry McIntyre, who’s taken Messiah under his wing and helped him through the trials and tribulations of his rookie season.

“I’m very hard on him,” McIntyre said. “I expect him to be even better than me.

“Being a freshman, you don’t want to mess up,” McIntyre continued. “You just want to do your job and (I’m) just staying hard on him to make sure he gets better for us.”

Despite his success thus far, there have been some growing pains. After all, college offenses, particularly in the Mid-American Conference, can throw a lot at a defense that young, inexperienced players, like Messiah, didn’t experience  in high school.

Elmassian said the toughest challenge for an inexperienced perimeter player is in the passing game.

“Your margin for error is diminished, totally diminished because of the speed of the ball and the accuracy,” Elmassian said.

“It’s a lot more complex,” Messiah said. “In high school, you can make a mistake and still make a play on the ball. But now, the window for opportunity is much smaller.”

As Messiah continues to grow in his first exposure to college football, Elmassian has seen a steady development through the growing stages that young players face.

“Development goes from me, to what’s around me, to what’s in front of me,” Elmassian said. “So he’s come from me, to understanding what’s surrounding (him), and then probably the biggest improvements (is) what’s going on in front and trusting (your talent).”

And Messiah does feel he’s gotten better, especially with understanding his assignments.

Molnar hasn’t just been impressed with Messiah’s play on the field, but also his leadership qualities both on and off the field.

“He’s the type of guy that I could see being a captain here in a couple of years,” Molnar said. “He’s an excellent leader on the field, especially with the younger players, and also in the locker room, which is very, very rare for a freshman.”

With all the success Messiah has already experienced this season, he could be looked upon to lead the UMass defense in the future, which is a task he’s very comfortable fulfilling.

“If that were to happen, I definitely would take the challenge and I would embrace it, and I would do what I have to do for my team to be successful,” Messiah said. “If they wanted to bestow that responsibility on me, I’ll take it and run with it.”

If the past is any indicator, the Minutemen can take his word on that.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.