Experienced linebackers battling for playing time in UMass defense

  • University of Massachusetts linebackers Jarvis Miller, left, and Chinedu Ogbonna practice with the Minutemen at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts linebackers redshirt sophomore Claudin Cherrelus, left, and junior Mike Ruane practice with the Minutemen at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Thursday, August 8, 2019.

  • University of Massachusetts junior linebacker Mike Ruane practices with the Minutemen at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mike Ruane, right, offers a hand to fellow linebacker Jarvis Miller (2) during a University of Massachusetts Minutemen practice at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Thursday, August 8, 2019. Joining them on the drill are redshirt freshmen defenders Shannon Junior II, left, and Da'Shon Ross.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2019 9:08:18 PM

AMHERST — The unit that lost UMass’ best defensive player last year also happens to be the group that could afford to manage that loss.

Bryton Barr’s departure in the middle of the Minutemen’s defense left a hole at middle linebacker for both a strong tackler and leader. Yet in his wake, Barr left a strong group of experienced linebackers ready for the spotlight in a new defense. UMass returns four linebackers who played in all 12 games for the team last year and added Jarvis Miller as a graduate transfer from Penn State.

The linebackers are the one defensive position group that doesn’t have to rely heavily on talented but inexperienced players to succeed this season.

“Every single person in that room can play,” Miller said. “We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but as a group we’re one of the strongest units. Every guy can play multiple positions – Mike or Will – and some are even athletic enough to play nickel or Sam. We’re really versatile and we have a lot of strengths we can bring this season.”

Miller was thought to be the guy coach Walt Bell brought in to replace Barr’s leadership because of Miller’s experience at Penn State. Although Miller has accepted that role, he is also surrounded by many others who consider themselves leaders as well.

Junior Chinedu Ogbonna finished second on the team with 72 stops last season after starting all 12 games at outside linebacker. Fellow junior Cole McCubrey made four starts at outside linebacker and finished with 35 tackles. Meanwhile junior Mike Ruane earned plenty of experience on special teams and subbed in at outside linebacker as well as a reserve.

McCubrey said that with so many younger players earning snaps across the defense, it’s important for the experienced linebackers to be a beacon of the expectations Bell has set for the group.

“We’ve got to hold the standard,” McCubrey said. “We have to bring it every day and give everyone something to look up to and give everyone a standard every day to follow.”

It seems likely both Miller and Ogbonna will start for the Minutemen at Rutgers, but the competition for the other starting spots will likely go down until the final days of preparation for the Aug. 30 opener. McCubrey has missed the past few practices with an undisclosed injury, but coach Walt Bell said he expects the junior to return shortly.

His absence has allowed players like Ruane and redshirt sophomore Claudin Cherrelus to earn more reps and perhaps earn a starting spot.

“With the spot of a starter opening up, it brings the best out of people competition wise,” Ruane said before camp began. “I’m really looking forward to that and growing and learning off each other. If I don’t bring it one day during camp, Cole or Chinnedu will definitely have it and it’ll just push me to be even better.”

RUANE EMERGING — Midway through UMass’ summer training sessions with strength coach Matt Shadeed, Ruane decided to challenge himself.

The Minutemen were running a conditioning test every Friday and Ruane was dominating it within his position group. He was outpacing the other members of what Shadeed deemed the “mid-skill” group, so he decided to up the level.

Soon he was running the same tests with the receivers, cornerbacks and other positions known for their speed and conditioning. After struggling the first time around with that group, he improved in his final two tries to the point where he only failed on one rep during the last test before the start of training camp.

“I just told myself I could do this and I could push myself,” Ruane said. “I was doing well with the mid-skill groups with the linebackers and the quarterbacks, so why not challenge myself even more and get better in-shape. I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life right now.”

Although Ruane made 28 stops last year, he was most known for his special teams prowess. Yet so far through fall camp, Ruane seems to be in the lead to start at outside linebacker against Rutgers, a testament to the work he put in this offseason.

“Football is something I’ve always loved and now when you get to college, it’s almost like a job,” Ruane said. “When you see that clock ticking, you just want to go as hard as you can for as long as you can while you’re here.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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