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UMass looking to fill void at tradition-rich linebacker

AMHERST — The line of succession has usually been pretty clear in the University of Massachusetts’ long-standing linebacker tradition.

When Jason Hatchell graduated, Josh Jennings was next in line. When his career ended, Tyler Holmes became the play-making, tackle-amassing linebacker that UMass has always had. Perry McIntyre took the baton from Holmes. The 20-year tradition goes back to Justin Reimer, Khari Samuel and Kole Ayi.

As a senior last season, McIntyre earned first-team all-conference honors while finishing second in the Mid-American Conference with 11.0 tackles per game. But there’s not an obvious player to fill McIntyre’s void.

The two most likely candidates are Kassah Messiah and Jovan Santos-Knox. Both showed flashes of star potential at times as true freshmen and were optimistic about their chances to build off their first year.

“It’s been good, exciting,” Santos-Knox said. “I feel like everything is finally coming together on the defense. I feel like I’m a million years ahead of where I was last year. I didn’t really know what was going on out there half the time. Now I know my reads. I see everything and it’s coming a lot easier for me.”

Messiah agreed.

“It’s almost like night and day. Being a young guy last year, it was almost like I was swimming,” he said. “Now that everybody has been in the program a little bit you can see everybody is more confident. Everybody is running instead of thinking so much.”

UMass coach Charley Molnar said the improvement is obvious.

“When I look out there at them, they look like veterans to me,” Molnar said. “They way they’re being coached and the way that they respond, they kind of get it now. You don’t have to tell them over and over again. They’re just scratching the surface. I think you’re going to see improved play from those guys. They’ve made tremendous gains in the weight room and I think you’re going to see that on the field.”

The veteran of the group is junior Stanley Andre, who started his career as a linebacker, played defensive line in the fall, and has moved back to middle linebacker this spring.

HARRIS TO WR — Redshirt freshman Iric Harris, who played defensive back last year, has moved to wide receiver.

“We lack depth at wide receiver. Watching him through winter workouts, he’s very explosive. He was average as a corner,” Molnar said. “We think he could be above average at wide receiver with his quickness and his feet and his intelligence. His hands are good not great right now. I think over the 15 practices if he can take what he learns and build on it over the summer, I think he’ll be pretty good.”

BIG RECRUIT OFFERED — According to TampaBay.com, UMass has offered a scholarship to Marcus Applefield, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound junior offensive tackle at Weeki Wachee High School in Tampa, Fla.

GROUNDBREAKINGS — The official groundbreaking for the UMass Football Performance Center and the Basketball Champions Center will take place at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., respectively, on April 26.

The two events are connected to UMass’ 150th anniversary celebration taking place that weekend. The events are open to the public.

The UMass Football Performance Center will be built at the north end of McGuirk Stadium. The building, which will house the team’s locker room, weight room, coaches offices and meeting rooms, is part of the $34.5 million McGuirk Stadium renovation project that also includes a new press box.

The Champions Center, which will feature locker rooms, offices, and strength and conditioning facilities, is the new practice home for the men’s and women’s programs. It will be built on the fields south of the Mullins Center across from the Campus Recreation Center.

Both buildings are expected to be completed in the summer/fall of 2014.

COMMUNITY OUTREACH — Several UMass football players and coaches spent Easter at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Northampton and Molnar expected that quite a few players would be volunteering at the Autism Speaks 5K in Amherst on Sunday.

“We had a great turnout (at the VA). I was really proud that our guys took the time and went there. It shows our guys want to give back to the community,” said Molnar, who planned to run in the road race.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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