Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A bright spot last year, Don Brown’s defense looks to be even better

First defensive unit shows out on Saturday’s spring game
Dylan Nguyen / Daily Collegian

After a 1-11 record in Don Brown’s first season as the Massachusetts football head coach, bright spots aren’t hard to point out. The defensive unit was the main force behind keeping the Minutemen in games last year, and it poises to be even better in year two under Brown.

“Year two of anywhere we’ve always been — coach Brown and I — year two has been a really good year, a big jump year for us,” defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski said Thursday after practice. “So hopefully we’ll see that come this fall. But I think that’s the thing, you got guys who know the defense, now they’re playing with confidence, they know the checks, they’re in front of it. We’re able to install a lot more defensive [concepts] and play a lot of defense right now.”

Brown’s defense beat offensive coordinator Steve Casula’s offense on Saturday’s spring game, 18-17, needing a game-winning blocked field goal in the final seconds. The points system was the same for the offense, but the defense could earn points by getting interceptions (one by Dorian Helm), fumbles, safeties, stopped drives and missed field goals.

A misleading scoreline doesn’t show just how well the defense played when the first units were out on the field. Brown and Dudzinksi’s guys completely shut down the first unit of an offense led by former Clemson and Georgia Tech quarterback Taisun Phommachanh. Brown explained the rotations as the first unit of the offense facing the first one of the defense, the second units facing each other and the same for the third ones. There’s only so much one can conclude from a practice-like spring game, but when the main defense was on the field there was nothing the offense could do.

The first defensive unit featured talents like defensive end Marcus Bradley, cornerback Jordan Mahoney and safety Tyler Rudolph, among many more high-impact players. Returners like them are one of the main reasons behind the improvement over the offseason.

“I think [the jump comes from] familiarity,” Brown said. “Our guys were carrying over 40 concepts defensively for today. Well, a year ago, they’re not so sure about all those concepts. When now, we pound at them with a similar taste, and obviously they’re managing it much better.

Brown continued, “we wanted to see how much man coverage we can play. That’s got to be partly who we are. You’ve got to be able to have no free access and make your opponents feel you and feel the pressure … Outside of not getting lined up on the one play, I thought we competed pretty well on defense.”

Luckily for Brown, the pass defense may be the least of his concerns. UMass ranked 12th in the country in third down conversion percentage on defense last year at 30.9 percent, 9th in passing yards allowed per game at 175.2 and 25th in defensive first downs. Those are commendable rankings considering how often the offense left them in disadvantageous positions. And the Minutemen’s defense is returning almost everyone.

The secondary could have enough juice to hold up against almost anyone they’ll face all year. Some of its most noticeable aspects are the great size and talent across the board, but the depth of the group shouldn’t be overlooked. There are about a dozen guys who can come in and play defensive back at a high level for UMass.

Jordan Mahoney and Josh Wallace are the two returning starters for the Minutemen. Mahoney was named a First Team All-Independent with his three interceptions, three forced fumbles (ranked 7th in the nation) and six passes defended. His ability to singlehandedly take an opposing receiver out of the picture is crucial for this team. Wallace, along with many other defensive backs in the team, caught the injury bug and has missed spring practice almost entirely, but has size, skill and valuable experience.

“[Mahoney is] a veteran back there right now, just makes plays constantly around the ball,” Dudzinski said. “He’s a very good press guy. Very good off coverage guy. Always making plays. And I think guys look at that and see how he plays every day and they want to play to that level.”

The duo of Mahoney and Wallace is a staple of the Minutemen’s defense, but the entire secondary now exudes talent. Rudolph, Steven Ortiz, Jalen Harrell and Noah Boykin are all former 4-star prospects, with Rudolph providing some high-quality play at safety. Ortiz is a transfer from Minnesota who’s recovering from an injury, but according to 247Sports scouts had NFL potential coming out of high school. Harrell and Boykin transferred from Miami and Notre Dame respectively, are both over 6-foot-2-inches tall and held offers from every Power-5 school imaginable.

When you add Dashaun Jerkins, who played at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt and has forced his way onto the field by making plays all spring; freshman safety Christian LeBrun, who chose UMass over five Power-5 schools; Helm, who caught Saturday’s only interception; Darius Gooden and about two or three other guys, this entire position group can be a problem for anyone on the wrong side of the coin toss.

Gooden, a Rutgers transfer, is particularly intriguing due to his trajectory, moving from safety to a unique “big nickel” corner role. Brown praised him as a 6-foot-2-inch, 205-pound corner who “can run and put his hands on you” and is “taking great strides.”

As for the defensive line, despite losing crucial defensive leaders Marcus Cushnie and Jalen Mackie, the Minutemen’s front seven can pull their weight and help the defensive backs by improving against the run. Marcus Bradley and Billy Wooden profile as high-impact players and captains in the trenches.

“I think the [defensive line] has really come a long way,” Dudzinski said. “And a lot of it starts with Billy [Wooden] upfront, and Billy is healthy now. So he’s really done a great job and having him all spring makes a big difference. He brings leadership, makes a lot of plays on the field, and I think that just creates a lot of energy upfront with the defensive guys.”

Wooden blocked the field goal attempt in the closing seconds of the spring game to win it for the defense.

“Marcus [Bradley] is still with us and now he’s playing both defensive ends positions, which isn’t easy, but we’re doing that for obvious reasons,” Brown said. “In a normal scenario, it could be at the tight end side defensive end, but in pass rush scenarios, he can move to the other side.”

Also in the front seven, there are a number of other talented additions to the team. Florida State transfer Shambre Jackson is a former 4-star prospect at the defensive line who made a couple of plays behind the line of scrimmage on Saturday’s game. At the linebacker position, a pair of Arizona transfers followed Brown to UMass and look to play large roles: Tyler Martin and Jerry Roberts Jr.

Martin is a strong, 250-pound inside linebacker whose run fits caused issues for the offensive line Saturday, and Roberts started 18 games in the PAC-12 at Arizona, finishing second in the team in tackles with 78.

With the influx of new talent or the expertise of returning contributors, UMass’ defense might be more competitive next year. Combined with an improvement on offense, the Minutemen could take a considerable jump in year two of the Don Brown era.

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_GraySoares.

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