The other cornerback providing a bright spot for UMass football

Josh Wallace is making an impact in his freshman year

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The other cornerback providing a bright spot for UMass football

Nina Walat

Nina Walat

Nina Walat

By Thomas Haines, Sports Editor

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The Massachusetts football team was trailing Louisiana Tech by 35 points midway through the second quarter, and despite scoring their first touchdown moments before, the Minutemen (1-6) were staring down the barrel of another ugly loss.

A failed onside kick only made matters worse, and on the first play of the drive the Bulldogs’ DeAndre Marcus plowed his way down to the UMass 2-yard line. Before Marcus and LA Tech could find the end zone again, though, cornerback Josh Wallace swooped in and punched the ball out for UMass’ first takeaway.

It was a signature moment for the freshman Wallace, who notched eight tackles and broke up several passes in addition to the first takeaway of his college career.

“He’s played a lot of snaps, probably well before he was ready to play physically or mentally, but he’s done a great job,” coach Walt Bell said. “He’s a really positive kid. He’s a guy that’s going to be, as this program grows, he’s going to be a huge part of why it grows in the direction we want it to.”

It’s been difficult to watch UMass this year, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where the Minutemen are surrendering 49.8 points and 554 yards per game. The secondary bears plenty of the blame; particularly in the beginning of the season, it wasn’t uncommon to see receivers running free through the defensive backfield.

In the first game, against Rutgers, UMass started redshirt freshman Donte Lindsey opposite Isaiah Rodgers. Since then, Lindsey’s been hurt and the rest of the secondary has been whittled down, most notably with safety Joseph Norwood leaving the team.

“Deathly thin,” Bell said. “We had three healthy corners at LA Tech, and so those guys [were] not really able to get off the field, and having to play probably more reps than normal, including on special teams. Same thing, thin at safety as well. Not playing very many guys.”

Josh Wallace is one of those guys still playing. Going into the season, the coaching staff made it clear that he’d been playing right from the get-go, partly for skill but mainly because of the lack of depth. He saw sparse reps from the first week but made the jump into the starting lineup in week five against Akron, the one game UMass won, the one game UMass allowed fewer than 40 points.

Since then he seems to have stuck. The stats aren’t eye-popping – 21 tackles in the seven games, 13 of those since he became a starter – and there are definitely mistakes, but there are flashes too. In a season where broken coverages and missed tackles are the new normal for UMass, it stands out when number 12 has tight coverage or wraps up a ballcarrier.

“He’s learning,” defensive coordinator Aazaar Abdul-Rahim said. “Each game, whether he makes plays or not, makes mistakes or not, it’s a lesson for him.”

“Coach Aazaar’s been on me pretty heavy,” Wallace said. “I just love it.”

It stands out all the more when you consider that Wallace had just one year of experience at corner, back when he was playing for DeMatha Catholic. Although he was a three-star recruit coming in, his star turn in high school came as a point guard for a nationally ranked basketball program, an experience that’s evident in his comportment on Saturdays.

“He’s been on the stage before,” Abdul-Rahim said.

While Wallace is stepping onto the D-I stage, his partner on the other half of the field already owns it. Now in his senior year, Isaiah Rodgers is far and away the best player on the Minutemen and might get a shot at the next level.

The senior-freshman pairing is perfect for a UMass team in transition. Wallace and Rodgers room together on the road, an intentional decision on the part of both Rodgers and the coaching staff, to allow Wallace to pick Rodgers’ brain. With the two now starting opposite each other on Saturdays, it’s worked out well.

“Isaiah’s quite the character,” Wallace said. “He’s funny, all that energetic. I’m learning from him every day – he’s teaching me stuff I never knew before.”

For a program trying to change the culture, it’s even better. As one of the few seniors, and one clearly invested in a difficult season, Rodgers is an ideal role model for an enthusiastic freshman learning to carry himself as a professional at the D-I level – learning from Rodgers “inside and outside of football,” as Abdul-Rahim put it – and the bond between the two corners can only help a UMass team with a focus on chemistry in a rebuilding year.

When Rodgers limped off in the fourth quarter of the LA Tech game, he looked for Wallace on the sideline.

“With me going down, I told him, ‘Somebody’s got to step up,’” Rodgers said. “And he did.”

Two quarters earlier, Wallace’s forced fumble was the first stop the Minutemen had gotten all night. Although they scored shortly thereafter to keep the momentum going, that would be as close as UMass would get. The final score was 69-21, the most points the defense had allowed all year, and the Minutemen entered the bye week with their third straight loss.

For a few minutes in the second quarter, though, UMass showed that it still had some fight, in a game and a season that already seemed lost. As the Minutemen look for building blocks, particularly on a talent-poor defense, it was the perfect time for Josh Wallace to come front and center.

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @thainessports.