AMHERST — For a five-game stretch in 2012, University of Massachusetts linebacker Kassan Messiah looked like a future star.
Then a true freshman, Messiah made 10 tackles in his first game and averaged 10.6 tackles in his first five contests, highlighted by 16 against Bowling Green. He was expected to be a key piece of the 2013 defense, but instead disappeared. He made just 21 total tackles and spent more of the season watching than impacting the defense.
But a new coaching staff and new 3-4 defense has meant a new start for most of the Minutemen.
In that defense, linebacker looks like one of UMass’ strongest points. It could be the deepest unit in the program. Even without true freshmen Shane Huber and Steve Casali, who both contributed before being injured in the fall, the Minutemen have quite a few capable players there.
“I think (the linebackers) have been pretty good. We have some size and athleticism,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said. “They’ve made some plays. Stan’s done a really good job and has been a good leader.”
“Stan” is junior Stanley Andre, who’ll be back at middle linebacker and captain the defense. Jovan Santos-Knox, John Robinson-Woodget will also be counted on to be playmakers inside.
Trey Seals, who played defensive end last year, will still be a pass rusher, but he’ll do it from outside linebacker. Messiah and Da’Sean Downey will get a chance to make an impact from the outside.
Whipple didn’t see Messiah in 2012, so he couldn’t judge if Messiah’s strong play is a return to that or a new surge all together.
“He’s made an impact. He was maybe the best player on the field a couple practices ago,” Whipple said. “He has ability.”
The lack of playing time and impact last year has Messiah hungry.
“Last year I felt like I was caged a little bit. I was just hungry to get out,” Messiah said. “That setback just gives me more fuel for a major comeback. I try not to look back on what I’ve done. I’m trying to just want to take this year and be the best that I can be and show everybody what I can do.”
Messiah was excited to be in a 3-4 defense.
“I feel like it’s a godsend. It’s the defense I belong in,” he said. “It’s a great fit.”
Santos-Knox was also a big fan of the change.
“I love it. I feel like we’re able to play more freely, more off of instincts. We’ll have a lot more opportunities to make plays,” he said. “It fits our defense a lot more. I feel like we’re a lot more comfortable than we were last year.”
Andre thought the system transition didn’t slow the Minutemen’s evolution.
“I don’t think it set us back at all,” he said. “We have a lot of experience, a lot of returning starters. This defense has definitely helped us.”
Santos-Knox said that even more than changing systems, the new coaches’ ability to rebuild morale has gone a long way.
“The atmosphere around here has changed. Everyone is upbeat. There’s so much energy from the coaches and the players,” he said. “You can feel it on the field. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to win a lot more games. I’m getting the best coaching I’ve ever gotten in my whole life. It’s brought the fun back into football. That was missing before.”
“My love for football has come back,” Seals said. “You can see the energy back in practice.”
The Minutemen open the season against Boston College at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
“This new era of UMass football is great,” Seals said. “August 31 can’t come soon enough.”