Kassan Messiah, Trey Seals to shoulder pass rushing responsibility for UMass football

By Mark Chiarelli

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

The Massachusetts football team’s defense found itself in many positions last season, but rarely did it ever find itself in a position to sack the opposing quarterback.

Only Western Michigan posted worse sack totals in the Mid-American Conference last season than UMass, finishing with a measly seven compared to the Minutemen’s total of 12. In comparison, five different teams finished with more than 30 sacks in 2013. Only one other program – Miami (Ohio) – finished with less than 20 sacks (14).

For opposing teams preparing for UMass, time to attack the Minutemen’s secondary was ample.

“Last year, we felt a little caged,” outside linebacker Trey Seals said. “We were just sitting back and waiting for offenses to attack us.”

Rumblings about UMass’ vanilla defensive strategy last season are plentiful this summer, especially when juxtaposed to the new 3-4 defensive scheme implemented by defensive coordinator Tom Masella. In 2013, the Minutemen were likely to rush just four down linemen, relying on a pass rush from a hodgepodge of defensive linemen to cover for a secondary which, on most plays, was dropping into a basic quarters or cover four zone coverage.

That won’t be the case this season.

“Versatility is amazing, it just keeps the offense guessing,” outside linebacker Kassan Messiah said of the new defense, which supposedly offers a variety of fronts and blitz packages.

“(Opposing offenses) never know what angle you’re coming from. It lets you do so many different things as far as blitzing from the opposite side and dropping back into coverage. … They don’t see your hand and they don’t know exactly what you’re doing.”

Minutemen players are up front in saying that other teams should expect UMass to initiate the attacking nature unlike last season. And in a traditional 3-4 defense, the onus on pressuring the quarterback falls squarely on the shoulders of the outside linebackers.

“They’re multi-talented, they have to do everything,” outside linebackers coach Charles Walker said of his positional group. “They rush the passer, they drop into coverage, they carry verticals, it’s a multi-talented position. … We use them in a variety of ways so they have to be skillful.”

Outside linebackers historically gain some of the highest recognition in a successful 3-4 defense. Current professional outside linebackers such as Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers and Trent Cole of the Philadelphia Eagles are among the highest salary earners in the league and former New York Giant Lawrence Taylor is regarded as one of the best of all-time.

Messiah understands that notoriety comes with the territory.

“It’s very special, it’s a leadership role,” he said. “It’s a position where you get to make your presence felt in almost all aspects. In run support, in the passing game, everything. Because we play such a premier position I take that as if you don’t play well, the defense doesn’t play well.”

The majority of that burden will fall on Messiah and Seals specifically. The pair of juniors – who both stand at 6-foot-4, 237 pounds – will be the bookends in the 3-4 and are expected to provide a significant amount of the pass rush.

Seals is a steady player with 21 games of experience. He played as an undersized defensive end in the 4-3 last season and has experience playing with his hand in the ground and upright. In 2013, injuries nagged Seals and he started just four of the nine games he played in. He said he’s “appreciated” the switch to the 3-4 because it better fits his build and his skillset is ideal for rushing the passer.

Messiah is a physical specimen capable of playing a variety of positions. He created a stir his freshman season when he made 65 tackles in nine games and appeared to be a player destined for UMass stardom. But Messiah found himself in the previous coaching staff’s doghouse in 2013 – a move which remains perplexing – and made just 21 tackles in 11 games.

The duo has impressed Walker so far, who noted both players are “very respected on the team.”

“They’re doing a great job, they’ve been here a while,” Walker said. “They’ve been here and seen a lot of change and they want things to grow in the right direction. They’re rallying the guys, not only in our group, but with the team as well.

Both players said they feel they have a lot to prove as a team. The Minutemen plan to play aggressively, meaning that if Seals and Messiah can’t consistently get to the quarterback, other areas of the field may be vulnerable. But the chance to add a defensive identity and a consistent pass rush excites Messiah.

“I feel like my team has a lot to prove,” he said. “We haven’t had the greatest two seasons but I believe there’s a lot of talent on this team and there’s a lot of expectation we have within ourselves.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.