Freshmen linemen called upon in trenches for UMass

  • University of Massachusetts defensive linemen junior Jake Byczko, left, and freshman Wilson Frederic practice with the Minutemen at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Thursday, August 8, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Cedric Douglas, center, who is the defensive line coach for UMass, works with a group of players during practice, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/11/2019 9:44:15 PM

AMHERST — Cedric Douglas admits he sounds like a broken record most days.

Such is the life of the UMass defensive line coach with the number of young, inexperienced linemen sitting in his meeting room on a daily basis. The Minutemen’s lack of experienced depth on the front line has pressed into action several young players. Five of the 11 defensive linemen UMass has played in the opening two games saw their first college snap against Rutgers two weeks ago, including a pair of true freshman defensive tackles: Wilson Frederic and Billy Wooden.

Douglas said both of them are hard workers and strong on their feet, but they are slowly learning the lessons of how to succeed in Division I football.

“The good thing is they understand football, it’s just about understanding the consistency (required at this level),” Douglas said. “You can get away in high school with not being detailed in your technique, and that’s the difference. When dudes are just as good as you or a lot of times older and bigger than you, you’ve got to be a scientist with the details of your hands and stuff like that.”

There have been several lessons the two freshmen have learned as both Rutgers and Southern Illinois made it a point to run the ball a lot at the undersized UMass defensive line. The first learning experience was just maintaining the pace the game is played with, and how much faster everything moves in college compared to high school. That was especially critical to Frederic, who arrived later in the summer than many of his classmates and had to quickly catch up to the tempo that UMass practices with on a daily basis.

The second lesson is that what worked for a defensive lineman in high school probably won’t work for them in college – at least initially. Most Division I linemen were the biggest and strongest players on the prep field, so there wasn’t a need to do anything other than flex those muscles when stopping the run or rushing the pass. Wooden said he really only had power moves coming out of Calvert Hall in Maryland, so he’s tried to soak up as many other techniques as he can to counter the bigger offensive linemen he’s facing.

“Knowing that there are people bigger than you now, you’ve got to beat them with technique and speed and different elements like that,” Wooden said. “It’s been tough, my fallback move had always been to go bull rush, but I’m learning that there’s different counters that you can do. Coach Douglas has been teaching me a lot, Coach Ben Bradley, we’ve just been repping and repping more techniques that can help us against bigger and stronger offensive linemen.”

After Saturday’s setback against the Salukis, head coach Walt Bell made it a point to mention that the players who participated in their first games the past two weeks couldn’t use their inexperience and youth as an excuse moving forward. Both Frederic and Wooden said they don’t quite feel like veterans yet, but the first two games definitely eliminated any unnecessary jitters from their system because they know what to expect and understand the coaches have put a lot of faith in them to perform in games.

“Coming in, I was a younger guy and I had to step up to the plate because the coaches looked for me to really step up as a freshman,” said Frederic, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Sunday. “Those two games really knocked the nerves out from me.”

Bell has entrusted a lot in his two freshmen defensive tackles, especially considering how difficult it is for younger linemen to be ready to play in the trenches early in their careers. But Wooden has been moved up to the starting defensive tackle spot on this week’s depth chart after sitting behind Charly Timite the first two weeks, and Frederic has been listed as the primary backup to sophomore Dennis Osagiede all season.

Bell said he made the switch with Wooden because of Wooden’s effort in practice, but that he also has full faith in those two guys being the best the Minutemen have at the position.

“They’re our best guys; freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, we’re going to play the best guys,” Bell said. “Those guys right now are giving us the best chance to play. For future development of the program, three, four years from now you’re going to have a really experience group and a really seasoned group.”

In the interim, the Minutemen need their young defensive linemen to raise their level of play this weekend at Charlotte. UMass ranks 125th out of 129 FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing 231.5 yards per game, and faces a Charlotte rushing attack led by Benny LeMay, who is averaging almost 8 yards per carry.

Unlike last season, the Minutemen have limited the explosive run plays for the most part this year, yet they are still allowing 5.6 yards per rushing attempt. Wooden said it’s important for the defensive line to do a better job at tackling and make sure those runs don’t reach the second and third levels of the defense.

“We’ve got to stop the run,” Wooden said. “We’ve been working a lot on tackling and really wrapping up. Last week, we did a bad job at tackling, so we’ve been focusing on tackling and focusing on the small details.”

JUNIOR LEAVES TEAM — Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Shannon Junior II left the team voluntarily Wednesday, Bell announced after practice. Junior played in the first two games at the BUCK position and made two tackles, including a sack.

Bell said the decision has been brewing for awhile but Junior made the final call Wednesday to leave the team. Junior Chinedu Ogbonna, who started Saturday at BUCK against Southern Illinois, will now slide into the starting role with redshirt freshman Jonathan Weir becoming the backup on the depth chart.

“He’s been a wonderful kid, a guy that’s worked really hard and done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Bell said. “I’ve got a lot of love for that kid and like I told him today, 10 years from now if he needs something from me, we’re all good for that.”

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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