UMass football making strides on defensive side of the ball
AMHERST — There are four University of Massachusetts football players on various preseason award watch lists. Three of them are on offense.
That kind of goes with the way the Minutemen have played. The offense has been ahead of the defense.
This year, the players on the defensive side of the football want that to change some.
Playing against the offense in practice kind of gets the competitive juices flowing.
"It does get us ready," safety Tyler Hayes said. "It's like iron sharpening iron. It really gets us going. When we play against running backs Marquis [Young] and Bilal [Ally], and the linemen make the D-linemen work."
"Last year, we had a new defense and a couple of weak links in our defense. This year, we're really learning to play as one, which I think is really important," linebacker Bryton Barr said. "When we have individuals on the team, that can hurt us. I don't think we have that anymore. You look at teams like the New England Patriots. Franchises like that, they don't have individuals. Coach [Bill] Belichick will kick a guy off the team if he doesn't buy into the whole team aspect.
"That's really important for us."
Barr, the top returning tackler from last year's 4-8 team, will lead the UMass defense onto the turf at McGuirk Alumni Stadium Saturday against Division I-FCS Duquesne.
Unlike the offense, which returns most of its personnel — both playmakers and along the line — half of the starters on defense from the depth chart before the season finale against Florida International have graduated.
Barr led UMass with 45 solo tackles and 105 total, five sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. He is the only one of the top four tacklers from last year's team to return. Linebacker Jarell Addo, the team's No. 5 tackler last year, is the only other returnee among the top six tacklers.
It is the second year under defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham.
"It's not that big of a difference," Barr said. "All of those [returning] guys were here last year. They were learning the same defense as I was. We've just got to get on board.
"I try to teach the young guys and lead by example."
Hayes was UMass' free safety a year ago, had 53 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups. The rising senior says that the defense is getting ready to catch the offense.
"We're working" on that, he said, "step by step. We've got a couple of freshmen that are going to come in and help us. The quicker we [jell] the better.
"Instead of last year and thinking about what we lost, we should think about what we're gaining from the freshmen and the people stepping up."
Barr, a 6-foot, 220-pound middle linebacker, has been playing college football since the 2012 seasons. He had medical redshirts for almost three full seasons while playing at Division I-FCS Towson. Now, he's in his second season as a graduate transfer at UMass. He was granted two years of eligibility by the NCAA going into 2017.
"I would have told them you're crazy," he said, when asked what he would say if he was told in 2012 that he'd be playing in 2018.
Barr is looking to go from UMass to the professional level, but he didn't think it would take this long.
"It's always been my goal to play at the next level, whether it be the NFL or the CFL," Barr said. "I just wanted to get my degree and get out. Seven years later, I'm still in college. It's kind of funny."
When Barr steps on the McGuirk turf on Saturday, it will be the first steps in the final stage of his college journey.
"Looking back, when I was playing at Towson, it seemed like forever ago," Barr said. "It's close to a decade, because I'm in my seventh year of college football. I feel very blessed and I thank God every day for another opportunity to step on this field. Every day I wake up and thank him for that extra breath.
"I'm just happy to be here with my teammates at UMass, and I think we've got something special here."
Howard Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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