UMass notebook: Kitching shines, West Springfield’s Dan Jonah catches touchdown

By Mark Chiarelli

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Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

There weren’t many players making a positive impact in the Massachusetts football team’s season-ending 41-21 loss to Buffalo last November, a game which still bothered UMass coach Mark Whipple when spring practice in advance of 2015 began months later.

But one player — nose tackle Robert Kitching — excelled and turned heads, making eight tackles, including two for a loss.

Kitching picked up right where he left off in Friday’s spring game, recording five tackles and two sacks. He was one of the most disruptive players on the field and even batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage. It was a sign that Kitching, who assumes the starting nose tackle role in 2015 with the graduation of Daniel Maynes, could be comfortable in a larger role.

“He’s bigger and stronger,” Whipple said Friday, “I think he’s gained more confidence. And the whole D-line has. He’s shown up like that and he did it at the end of the year for the last couple of games, he probably played as well as anyone.”

Inside linebacker Shane Huber, who plays behind Kitching in the 3-4 defense, took the praise one step further.

“I gotta tell you, Robert Kitching is a freak athlete,” Huber said. That kid can bench 500 pounds, run a 4.7 40 (yard dash), I’ve never seen an athlete that size do some of the things he does. Having a guy like that in front of me who is athletic enough to get around and make his own plays and strong enough to take on the guys to help free up the linebackers, it’s definitely a blessing to have a guy like that.”

Kitching acknowledged he made a handful of “big plays” throughout the game, which featured an intra-squad exhibition at McGuirk Stadium. It’s part of his developmental process of taking his physical abilities and translating them more consistently to the field.

“That’s my game man, I’m running all over the field,” he said. “As a nose that’s a big part of the 3-4 defense so I just have to be physical every day.”

When next season begins, Kitching will be one of two seniors on the defensive line. It’s a youthful group with potential — the team is high on defensive ends Peter Angeh and Sha-Ki Holines, and there’s a number of physically imposing rotational depth bodies.

Much of the leadership responsibility will fall on Kitching, which he described as a “passing of the torch.” It comes in a season where the anticipation — and the expectations — are at an all-time high.

“This is it man, the vibe is right,” he said. “Everybody feels it, everybody sees it. It’s going to be a year to never forget, so get ready.”

Jonah begins the transition to football

Of the 1,974 in attendance at Friday’s spring game, it’s safe to assume few believed the first touchdown of the game — and the unofficial start to 2015 — would be caught by Dan Jonah. In fact, Jonah isn’t even officially listed on the UMass roster online as of Friday night.

But there he was, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound native of West Springfield crossing over the middle of the field, his defender trailing behind. His quarterback Austin Whipple spotted him, completed the pass and watched as the junior receiver bolted into the right corner of the end zone for a 19-yard score, putting his team up 10-3 in the fourth quarter.

“It was a great feeling,” Jonah said. “It just felt like I was part of the team. All the work we put in throughout the whole spring paid off.”

A year ago, Jonah was a part of a very different team.

Jonah spent his first two years on campus as an outfielder on the Massachusetts baseball team, appearing in 12 career games. But according to Jonah, baseball wasn’t working out at UMass and he sought a transfer.

A decorated baseball and football player at West Springfield High School, Jonah wanted to give football another chance. He presumed he’d attend and play at American International College in Springfield.

But former UMass running backs coach Marcel Shipp was on a recruiting visit to West Springfield and heard Jonah was interested in returning to football. He contacted Jonah and the two set up a tryout. Jonah had his shot and he didn’t even need to leave UMass.

“It’s a funny thing,” Jonah said with a smile.

He’s worked with the Minutemen all spring. A raw prospect — he only started playing football his sophomore year of high school and missed his junior year due to injury — he doesn’t know what the future holds, but noticed a significant improvement by the end of spring practice.

He’s simply excited to give it a shot.

“Basically, it’s just put in the work, do your best and things will play out,” he said. “That’s how I went into it.”

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