Young defenders are key for UMass’ injury-ridden defense

Gerrell Johnson looks to replicate his performance against BC

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Parker Peters

Parker Peters/ Daily Collegian

By Dylan Corey, Collegian Staff

The Massachusetts football team’s head coach Walt Bell didn’t mince words when asked about the importance of bolstering the run defense after giving up 223 rushing yards in week one and 250 last week against Boston College.

“That’s a hell of a question considering football comes down to running the football and stopping the run,” he said. “So yes, I would say we’re very mindful of that.”

The movement towards solidifying the Minutemen (0-2) defense needs to be led by the youth. Facing a number of injuries to an already young roster, every active defender for Saturday not named Avien Peah, Drew Harvey, or Bryce Watts is a freshman or sophomore.

“We’re going to have to basically create some interior d-linemen this week knowing Taishan and Josh Atwood have the potential to be down,” Bell said. “Drew Harvey and Da’Shon Ross are going to have to play really well, Zack Magdis is down, some young guys on the back end are going to have to step up.”

Bell has already been forced to experiment with the defensive line, inserting a defensive end at nose guard for the last 20 minutes against BC. Though they gave up more yards on the ground, Bell said there were some silver linings on defense. He was encouraged by leading tacklers being mostly linemen and linebackers compared to Pittsburgh where it was mainly defensive backs.

Freshman linebacker Gerrell Johnson posted a solid performance in week two against the Eagles, leading the Minutemen with 13 tackles. In the first game of the season against the Panthers, Johnson forced a fumble but was ejected from the game early. He said that penalty motivated him to play safe and correctly the following game.

“We had our two linebackers leave, Mike Ruane and Cole McCubrey, and I just knew I had big shoes to fill so it was time to step up,” he said.

Redshirt freshman Devin Baldwin is a second developing force for UMass. Baldwin completed two tackles for a loss of eleven yards and forced a fumble in the backfield in his first appearance as a Minuteman. Baldwin had 59 tackles and 12 sacks in his senior year at Southfield A&T, but did not make much noise before transferring from Rutgers.

“He’s still a redshirt freshman,” Bell said.  “He’s maturing, he’s starting to play better … as long as he continues to mature and really strive every day to continue to develop and improve to reach his ceiling. I think his ceiling’s really high.”

The UMass defense now looks to stop Eastern Michigan after having a few highs and plenty of low moments against a pair of ACC opponents in its first two weeks. Bell called the Eagles simple and sound in all three phases of the game, knowing that head coach Chris Creighton would take it as “the ultimate compliment.”

“I think our kids understand if they play really good football and they play with unbelievable competitive effort and execute at a higher level, our kids have learned that from a talent standpoint, even though we’re young, we’ve got what we need here,” Bell said. “We know how to play hard, but as we continue to learn to execute and mature, I think they now understand that if they execute they’ve got a chance to be a part of every game they’re in.”

Dylan Corey can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheDylanCorey.