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UMass football team gets a lift and a win from Joe Colton

AKRON, Ohio — After the University of Massachusetts’ first win as a Bowl Subdivision program Friday, senior safety Darren Thellen approached coach Charley Molnar with a message:

“When I leave,” Thellen told him, “give my scholarship to Joe Colton. Make sure he gets a scholarship.”

It seems like a sound investment. Without the true freshman walk-on starter at safety, UMass might still be seeking win No. 1. Colton had a big first-quarter punt block and an even bigger fourth-quarter interception that were huge ingredients in the 22-14 win over the Zips.

“He makes big plays week in and week out,” Thellen said.

The gesture carried extra weight coming from Thellen. UMass has a tradition of standouts at safety, handed down from Shannon James to James Ihedigbo to Jeremy Miles to Thellen, who appears to be grooming Colton to take the baton. Thellen is as respected as any Minuteman player by his teammates and the coaching staff. His recognition of his rookie teammate’s contribution to the team, the program and Saturday’s win meant a lot.

“Right after I got the pick he said, ‘I’m going to give you my scholarship.’ Then Hafis Williams ran over and said, “If this kid doesn’t get a scholarship I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” Colton said. “I’m so happy to have guys on this team that really care about me. It’s such a team game. We win the game and it’s the greatest feeling ever. Knowing that Darren acknowledged that I was a part of this win was just huge.”

It was fitting that Colton was a hero, because he’s the embodiment of what UMass is trying to be. The kid that nobody expected much from is becoming a standout on the program that nobody expects much from. He’s been consistently improving even in UMass defeats. Molnar singled him out as a rare bright spot in last week’s 63-0 loss to Northern Illinois.

Colton’s two big plays were huge for momentum. His first-quarter blocked punt allowed the offense to shake off its first-drive interception and take an early lead.

His 16-yard fourth-quarter interception not only blunted the momentum Akron had gained from cutting UMass’ halftime lead to 15-7, but it set up Mike Wegzyn’s 1-yard touchdown plunge that gave the offense confidence and the team as a whole momentum.

“He just looks like the kid down the street, the paperboy,” Molnar said. “But when that ball is in the air, he’s a heat seeking missile. If he’s not going to catch the ball he’s looking to knock the daylights out of the guy who does. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

He could have been on another team pretty easily. If any another Division I team had offered Colton a scholarship, Colton probably wouldn’t be a Minuteman.

But he showed up trying to show he could play at this level and has been proving it ever since, earning playing time and now seemingly a permanent starting job. He could be playing alongside many of his teammates for quite a while. Most of the members of the defense can’t drink legally and some barely need to shave.

But they’re contributing. Three of the four interceptions were by freshmen Colton, Randall Jette and Khary Bailey-Smith. Rookie linebackers Kassan Messiah and Jovan Santos-Knox have made impacts as well and Ryan Delaire, who made the game-clinching sack, is only a sophomore.

Colton is enjoying the ride.

“I’m just happy I was contributing. Every opportunity I had, I took advantage of. My coaches put me in the best position to make a play,” he said. “I’m just happy to be part of this.”

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

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