UMass football fall camp: Creating turnovers, forcing mistakes the focus for linebacking corps

By Anthony Chiusano

Collegian File Photo
Collegian File Photo

Massachusetts inside linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox handedly led the Mid-American Conference in tackles last year with an astounding total of 143. Eighth most in single season program history, Santos-Knox’s mark was only surpassed by four others nationally in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Santos-Knox would happily trade in a sizable portion of these tackles this season, however, for more turnovers created by the Minutemen defense and a chance to avoid having to make extra tackles.

Despite showing flashes of success in 2014, UMass’ defense ranked toward the bottom in turnover margin, sacks and total defense within the conference. Now heading into 2015, creating more “impact plays” to get off the field earlier has been the main focus.

According to Santos-Knox, this starts with the linebackers.

“We want to cause some commotion out there,” Santos-Knox said Wednesday. “We really emphasize pounding at the ball, stripping the ball and making big impact plays. We’re going to make the tackles, we know that for sure, but we want to make sacks, fumbles, interceptions, all those big things.”

The Minutemen’s early work in the area of creating turnovers has already paid dividends less than two weeks into fall training camp, according to UMass inside linebacker Shane Huber. The redshirt sophomore said the inside linebacking corps alone has already forced about six or seven fumbles and a few interceptions against the offensive unit.

“We’re making it a priority to strip the ball any given chance. When the first guy makes a tackle, the second guy is immediately trying to strip the ball,” Huber said. “We’ve definitely improved in that area and I think as a whole defense, it’s really going to show up on the field this year because obviously it plays a part of getting our explosive offense back on the field.”

Positioned beside Santos-Knox at the heart of the Minutemen’s 3-4 defense, Huber returns to UMass’ starting lineup after missing the last five games of his 2013 true freshmen season and all of last year due to a torn left ACL and MCL.

Huber returned to the field for UMass in April’s spring game and finished with seven tackles and an interception. After shaking off the rustiness that came with the summer break, he claimed he’s feeling the best he has ever been since arriving at UMass.

“I’m definitely bigger, faster and stronger now,” Huber said. “I’m starting to hit a groove now where I’m feeling comfortable and starting to really excel and take it another step every day.”

Minutemen coach Mark Whipple said Huber has been a welcome re-addition to an experienced group of returning linebackers. Whipple particularly noted Huber’s football IQ as a key factor in the defense’s success.

“It gives us certainly more depth and he’s an instinctive guy,” Whipple said. “The redshirt (year) has helped him and he had a lot of drill work and things during the season that helped him last year. He had a good spring and he’s carried it over to camp.”

Stronger pass rush starts with Seals, Messiah

While Santos-Knox and Huber form a formidable duo inside the hash marks, UMass will rely heavily on senior outside linebackers Trey Seals and Kassan Messiah to apply consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The Minutemen finished with 15 sacks in 2014, good for 11th most in the conference, while Messiah (three) and Seals (2.5) finished first and second respectively on the team in the category.

The highlight of Seals’ 2014 season came in a win against Ball State on Nov. 12 when he compiled four tackles, a forced fumble, fumble recovery, interception and six-yard sack. According to Seals, he’s looking to increase the consistency of these high-impact games, even if it doesn’t particularly lead to similar personal stat lines.

“Last year I did have a few big games but I’m looking to make more of an impact, even in setting my teammates up like Jovan and corners like (Randall) Jette,” Seals said. “I need to elevate my game to make everyone else elevate theirs.”

According to Santos-Knox, Seals’ impact goes beyond tackles and sacks. He described Seals as a dependable mainstay in UMass’ defense.

“We know he’s a great impact player but I don’t think his numbers show how great of a player he actually is,” Santos-Knox said. “He does his assignment every time, he knows what he’s doing out there and he never messes up.”

Seals said he and Messiah have each worked extensively on pass rushing techniques this summer in search for an increased sack total. Whipple added that the work has shown in Seals, who he said looks leaner and faster in practice.

“That’s what we’ve talked to these guys about, we had to get faster to rush the passer and put some pressure on people,” Whipple said. “I’ve watched tape on those guys from last year the last couple days and they’re playing faster.”

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.