Before his role as a key member of the UMass football team, Josh Wallace stood out for DeMatha Catholic basketball 

  • Josh Wallace played a key role on DeMatha Catholic's championship basketball season in 2018. He and the Stags played in the 2018 HoopHall Classic in Springfield against Archbishop Molloy. Bob Blanchard/RJB Sports Basketball Hall of Fame

  • UMass corner Josh Wallace stalks the defensive backfield for the Minutemen. He used to lock down opponents on the hardwood for DeMatha Catholic, one of the nation's premier basketball programs. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • UMass corner Josh Wallace stalks the defensive backfield for the Minutemen. He used to lock down opponents on the hardwood for DeMatha Catholic, one of the nation's premier basketball programs. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS—Chris Tucci

Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2022 5:37:07 PM

AMHERST — Justin Moore laughed to himself standing in the paint.

He and the rest of his DeMatha Catholic teammates hadn’t had to play much defense yet during the 2018 WCAC basketball semifinal because Josh Wallace hounded the opposing point guard 94 feet all game.

“That was their best player in the semis. Dude could not get the ball across half. He was struggling to get the team in their spots, and that was their best player,” said Moore, now a senior on the Villanova basketball team. “We’re all sitting back in the paint watching like ‘oh my god. He’s up in that.’ It made it so much easier for us.”

That’s UMass football’s junior cornerback Josh Wallace, to be clear. His movements backpedaling and shadowing his mark almost mirrored the way he covers receivers for the Minutemen.

“At corner it's like when you’re guarding someone at the top of the key,” Wallace said. “You just want to create angles for them, you don't want them to go around you.”

He spent his final two years of high school at one of the nation’s premier basketball powerhouses — DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md. The Stags went 64-10 during his tenure and captured the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference Championship when he was a junior, one of the most challenging high school basketball conferences in the nation. Moore was one of the top 100 players in the nation. Center Hunter Dickinson played at Michigan. Jahmir Young Jr. started at Charlotte before transferring to Maryland. Earl Timberlake Jr. began at Memphis before moving to Bryant.

“Every day it was competitive,” Wallace said. “Top 100 guys, so you just had to work every day.”

He transferred to DeMatha before his junior season after starring both on the basketball court and football field at St. Mary’s Annapolis. Wallace was the de facto No. 1 option and scored more than 20 points a game in addition to being the team’s top defender.

“It speaks a lot to who Josh is as a young man that he came in and embraced not being the guy that had to score and shoot all the time because he knew who was around him,” said then-DeMatha coach Mike Jones, now an assistant at Virginia Tech. “He just wanted to win. Whatever it was that we needed from him to win, that’s what he was willing to do.”

Wallace didn’t even play football his junior year, instead focusing on academics and basketball. He defined his role quickly as a defensive stopper, distributor and glue guy.

“That’s one of the most important jobs you can have for a team, that glue guy that will lay his body, all his personal goals to the side and do what the team needs. We had a lot of talent and for him to come in and pick up guys 94 feet, get deflections, get steals... that was huge for us,” Jones said. “He just wants the best for the people around him.”

DeMatha needed a player like that to allow the talent it carried to thrive in space and not back down from the top prospects it regularly faced. Wallace and his teammates matched up against three of the nation’s final top 25 teams as a junior and the top two teams in the country (IMG Academy and La Lumiere) his senior season. Their opponents included future NBA players RJ Barrett (Montverde Academy), Wendell Moore Jr. (Cox Mill), Isaac Okoro (McEachern), Josh Green (IMG), Cole Anthony and Moses Brown (Archbishop Molloy) as well as a nearly endless list of future high-major Division I players. Those years included two trips to the HoopHall Classic in Springfield.

“Guarded (Barrett) a couple possessions. That was a different game,” Wallace said. “It was fun, though.”

His own talent and proximity to that much star power attracted hoops attention to Wallace, as well. He had offers from James Madison, University of Maryland Baltimore County, and St. Joseph’s, as well as interest from George Mason, UNC Greensboro and VCU, according to the Washington Post.

“He was a huge reason why we were so good the two years he played for us,” Jones said. “Definitely could have been a Division I basketball player if he had chosen to.”

The pull of football never faded, though.

“I loved it more,” Wallace said.

He always watched YouTube videos at lunch. One day he was watching a football clip and a football coach saw it and invited him to come practice with the team. From that first practice, the staff knew the type of player he was and could be.

“Literally the very first practice he attended all of the football coaches came to me and said ‘hey this kid can go wherever he wants to in football. He’s that good.’ I went ‘really? After one day?’ They were like ‘yes, he’s got it,’” Jones said. “He played basketball that year, too, but maybe from that first day he stepped on the field with our football team everyone pretty much knew that if he wanted to, football was going to be his ticket.”

DeMatha provided a suitable box office. The Stags went 8-3 and reached the second round of the playoffs. Wallace drew football recruiting interest, but some of those coaches wavered because of his basketball acumen.

“A lot of coaches thought I was just gonna play basketball,” Wallace said.

Former UMass assistant Aazaar Abdul-Rahim​ (now at Boston College) and head coach Walt Bell (Indiana’s offensive coordinator) bet on Wallace’s potential. His teammate wide receiver Jermaine “OC” Johnson committing to the Minutemen also helped sway Wallace.

He joined UMass for the 2019 season but received an education in 2020 when the season was briefly canceled before being revived. All of the time spent quarantining gave Wallace time to adjust and study after transitioning so quickly from high school and AAU basketball to college football.

“It was kind of quick playing college football, adjusting to it,” Wallace said. “That COVID year luckily helped me out, learn a little bit about things.”

Don Brown taking over the UMass football program, defense and defensive packs in particular, put Wallace into a football master’s program. He helped Wallace understand defenses as a whole rather than just his particular position group. Wallace had never paid attention to the defensive line before or which gap they’re supposed to be in. Learning from Brown crystallized the synergy between position groups.

“He is very receptive to coaching, takes to coaching. You know, that's the scenario that young people don't always have or portray anymore,” Brown said. “This guy wants to be coached. He wants to get better. Obviously, I think he's played pretty well, especially the last couple of weeks. He's around the ball.”​

Wallace ranks second on the team with 19 tackles and first with four pass breakups. He snatched an athletic, diving interception against Stony Brook and is one of the team’s four captains. Wallace occasionally shoots around at the UMass rec center rims but doesn’t think of himself as a basketball player anymore.

“I don't really look back at it anymore,” Wallace said. “Kind of put it to bed.”

He still remains a part of the DeMatha basketball brotherhood, though. His former teammates and coaches catch UMass’ games when they can and keep up with him. Jones was going to attend the Minutemen’s contest against Temple at Lincoln Financial Field last weekend but couldn’t leave Virginia Tech because the Hokies had recruits on campus.

“One of the coolest things I think is Josh on the football field looks huge. He’s 6 feet, 6-1, whatever. Well, on the basketball court he’s one of the smallest guys on the court,” Jones said. “To see him at defensive back and guarding guys, he looks huge. He looks so tall. It’s amazing when I’m able to see that.”

He found the sport where he stands out rather than blends in.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.
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