UMass linebacker Kassan Messiah, center, defends during a scrimmage Aug. 18 at McGuirk Stadium.
UMass linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, center, walks to the sideline during a scrimmage Aug. 18 at McGuirk Stadium.
UMass offensive lineman Tyrell Smith, right, talks to wide receiver Tajae Sharpe during a scrimmage Aug. 18 at McGuirk Stadium.
UMass offensive lineman Matt Sparks during a scrimmage Aug. 18 at McGuirk Stadium.
AMHERST — At the end of Tuesday’s practice, UMass defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo held a long impromptu meeting with his unit on the McGuirk Stadium turf.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said as his team prepared for Saturday’s 3 p.m. opener against Boston College at Gillette Stadium. “We should have stayed out there longer.”
BC is a team in transition after losing quite a few key players from last year’s team that reached the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but the Eagles are still loaded on the offensive line. Senior center Andy Gallik, who was on the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason all-league team, leads a unit that starts five fifth-year seniors.
The Minutemen have a lot of experience on defense, but very little of it is on the defensive line. Coming off a back injury in camp, senior nose tackle Daniel Maynes is listed as a backup on UMass’ depth chart. If he doesn’t start, the Minutemen’s three linemen will have a collective two career starts, both belonging to Maynes’ would-be replacement Robert Kitching.
Sophomore defensive end Peter Angeh appeared in all 12 games last year, while redshirt freshman tackle Sha-Ki Holiness will be making his collegiate debut.
The Minutemen are expecting BC to try and overwhelm them at the line.
“It’s smash-mouth, get-after-their-butts football. It’s line up, run the rock and grind it out,” Sollazzo said. “We’re going to have to be extremely mental tough and we’re going to have to grind it out too. It’s going to come down to somebody making a play when we need it most. If we’re going to make a play we’re going to have to defeat a block.”
Last year’s season opener against Wisconsin was obviously before Whipple’s return, but he hoped it might prepare his players.
“I hope that last year’s Wisconsin game helps us a little, for the guys that played. (Boston College’s) offensive line certainly resembles what they saw at Wisconsin. They’re formidable,” Whipple said. “They have a good group up front. We have to see if we accept the challenge.”
The rest of the defense breaks down as follows:
Defensive Line — Maynes will play for the Minutemen, whether he’ll start is to be determined. Angeh narrowly beat Enoch Asante to start at defensive end, but Asante will certainly see action in the game.
Linebackers — This shapes up as UMass’ deepest and maybe most talented unit. The coaching staff has raved about a resurgent junior Kassan Messiah at outside linebacker. After a promising freshman year, he was buried on the bench for much of last season. He’ll get a chance to make a lot of plays at outside linebacker in UMass’ new 3-4 scheme. Junior Trey Seals starts on the other side and has impressed the staff as a pass rusher. Freshman Da’Sean Downey has had injury issues in camp that may have prevented him from competing to start, but he’ll see regular snaps at OLB if he’s healthy and projects to be a mainstay down the road.
In the middle, senior Stanley Andre is among the Minutemen’s most respected players by his teammates, coaches and opponents. He and fellow inside backer Jovan Santos-Knox, a junior, will be relied on as run stoppers.
Sophomore John Robinson-Woodgett, who won’t play Saturday with an ankle injury, and redshirt freshman Steve Casali will be regulars in the rotation as well.
If Shane Huber, who is battling back from a torn knee last year, gets healthy, he could be a contributor as well.
Cornerbacks — Junior Randall Jette has emerged as a leader and an all-conference candidate. He’ll be asked to line up against top receivers on a weekly basis.
UMass opponents will likely try to attack redshirt freshman Jackson Porter, who’ll be making his first career start against BC.
Junior Iric Harris and redshirt freshman Jesse Montiero will likely see regular action in extra defensive back packages. Junior Trey Dudley-Giles, who started at corner last year, has been moved to safety, but could slide back to corner if needed.
Safety — Two years ago, Joey Colton was the much-publicized plucky freshman walk-on trying to earn a scholarship. Now a junior, he’s not only a mainstay at safety, but a leader as well. He’ll start at one safety, while Dudley-Giles will start at the other.
Former starter Khary Bailey-Smith, a junior, could see regular action, as could freshman Zeke Edmonds, who has shown promise and physicality in camp.