Lorenzo Woodley finds opportunity after getting lost in the shuffle

By Mark Chiarelli

(Cade Belisle)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Massachusetts football running back Lorenzo Woodley’s career is off to an unsteady start.

The 6-foot, 212 pound sophomore experienced just enough success during his freshman season to remind fans why he was a highly recruited running back out of high school with offers from the likes of Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh. Despite missing four games due to injury, Woodley still rushed for 314 yards on 84 carries.

It was a taste – only a glimpse – of what Woodley is capable of doing. And just as soon as he appeared, he quickly disappeared.

Amid a coaching change and a fresh start to UMass football in 2014, Woodley found himself lost in the shuffle behind starting running back Jamal Wilson and freshman J.T. Blyden. Minutemen coach Mark Whipple noted after UMass’ 34-31 loss to Vanderbilt that Woodley was at one point in his “dog house.”

“It motivated me a lot,” Woodley said. “I was just trying my best to get back to where I was. Unfortunately, nobody wants to be in the dog house but I tried to do the best that I can to get out.”

Because of injuries to other running backs and a renewed clean bill of health, Woodley received an opportunity against the Commodores.

Wilson suffered a serious ankle injury in the first quarter against Vanderbilt – he’s expected to miss significant time, if not the year – and Blyden, his reserve, didn’t play due to injury. So the starting running back duties quickly belonged to Woodley.

And his first impression wasn’t strong.

Woodley bobbled a toss from quarterback Blake Frohnapfel on a designed run play to the left side. He failed to pick up the loose ball and knocked it into the end zone, where a Vanderbilt defender fell on the fumble for a touchdown. The miscue cut the UMass lead from 17-7 to 17-14.

“It hurt at first because I know I hurt my team by fumbling the ball,” Woodley said.

But when Woodley returned to the sideline, Whipple was the first person waiting for him. And instead of reprimanding Woodley, Whipple urged him to look ahead.

“He just told me ‘just let it go, don’t worry about it, play the next play,” Woodley said. “And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to come back and make more of a statement by playing better and tried to make my team win.”

Woodley’s statement came in the form of two touchdown runs for 22 yards on 43 carries. He struggled at first, but adapted to the offense as the game progressed. Part of it was simply getting used to playing meaningful football again.

“I was just trying to get that rust knocked off and trying to come out and make an impact,” Woodley said.

But according to Woodley, he put too much pressure on himself.

“The only thing that was running through my mind was ‘I’m getting back on the field for the first time this season significantly,” Woodley said. “So I was just focused too much on making a play instead of just playing my game.”

Woodley’s game is a valuable asset to a UMass squad that’s suddenly depleted at running back. His sturdy frame and ability to run between the tackles is something Whipple praised.

“I think he’s a pretty good inside zone runner and I think he has speed to get outside,” Whipple said. “He did a nice job on a couple things inside.”

Against Penn State Saturday, UMass needs Woodley to shoulder the offensive load. The Nittany Lions boast an impressive defensive line and Woodley noted he’s working with running backs coach Marcel Shipp to lower his pad level when running to power through tackles.

Assuming the starting role also means increased practice reps, something that will only help in shaking off the rust and should help Woodley improve his consistency as a player.

“It’s very important because the more reps you get, the better you get and the more you learn,” Woodley said.

“The more mistakes you make in practice, the more you learn from them. … It helps you prepare for the game. So when you get in the game you know what you’re going to do and you’re ready for everything to come.”

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