UMass football’s youthful defensive line gaining confidence

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  • University of Massachusetts sophomore defensive lineman Dennis Osagiede practices with the Minutemen at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Thursday, August 8, 2019.

  • University of Massachusetts sophomore defensive lineman Dennis Osagiede practices with the Minutemen at Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • 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. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/13/2019 6:15:16 PM

AMHERST – The defensive line was the weak point of the UMass defense last season.

Outside of a solid season from Jake Byczko, the Minutemen struggled to stop the run or pressure the passer with its front four. UMass recorded just 10 sacks – 3.5 of which came from Byczko and six were credited to linebackers – and was credited with just a single quarterback hurry. Byczko’s 55 tackles, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries were the only solace from a unit that vastly underperformed.

Byczko returns for his junior season at UMass and is now surrounded by a group of redshirt freshmen and sophomores eager for playing time. The shortage of experience has been a blessing in disguise for defensive line coach Cedric Douglas as he installs a new versatile scheme.

“There’s so much ground up teaching, which is fun because you literally get to build a D-line,” Douglas said. “It’s teaching them how to play.”

Byczko is the main leader of the young group – only senior Tyshaun Ingram has played in more games than the junior – even if he isn’t the most vocal on the field. He instead lets his play set the example for the other players, which Douglas and sophomore Dennis Osagiede said was the style of leadership that best suits the needs of the group right now.

Between Douglas’ coaching and Byczko’s leadership, the defensive line has seemed to make strides during practice even with the quick whistles and lack of contact through the first 10 days or so. The group has worked hard on improving the pass rush and staying in their lanes when defending the run, which is all the Minutemen can do at the moment to fix their issues from a year ago.

Byczko, though, has been happy with how his younger teammates have picked up the defense and pushed each other in practice.

“Definitely not a ton of experience but we have a lot of young defensive linemen who have stepped up,” Byczko said. “They’re doing really well right now, so I think we’ll be alright.”

The leader of the young guns is Osagiede, who played in nine games last season as a true freshman and made 15 tackles. He said the coaches have challenged him to be more of a leader this offseason, something he said comes naturally to him, and he’s used his experience last season to aid in his training.

In the ever-so flexible defensive fronts that UMass will employ this season, Osagiede is slated to return to the nose guard role the Missouri City, Texas, native succeeded in for two years in high school. Now Osagiede has to translate those skills to the college level and perfect his form to help UMass dominate the trenches.

“The most difficult thing for me is getting used to the college ball part of it,” Osagiede said. “How much weight matters, how much conditioning matters, how much your technique matters. Every little thing really matters in college, so you can’t be effective unless you’re at your best.

“Even though it was probably a third (of the plays) that our starter had, I felt like me dipping into the flow of the game, made me realize this is the speed, this is how it is and now I just have to get there.”

Osagiede has put in the effort this offseason to help take his game to the next level, becoming one of the biggest transformations from January to August under strength coach Matt Shadeed. He said his fitness and body are at a point he never thought he could achieve this summer and that he continues to try and improve his conditioning to keep up with the pace of UMass’ practices.

On the field, Osagiede’s eagerness to learn has stood out to Douglas.

“You tell him something and he’ll work his butt off to change it,” Douglas said. “You say ‘Hey man, that practice was eh, I thought you had more than that,’ the next day, that practice looks exactly what you said it wanted to. That’s what you love about him.”

BUCK THE TREND — When asked last week about some players who stood out during the first week of camp, coach Walt Bell mentioned redshirt freshman Shannon Junior II as someone who caught his eye. Bell said Junior has been playing the “Buck” position this summer, but it remains to be seen how exactly the Minutemen will use their front seven within the aggressive nature of the new defensive scheme.

TIMITE RETURNS — Redshirt junior Charly Timite has returned to the field for the Minutemen this offseason after missing all of last year with an undisclosed illness. Timite had 10 tackles during the 2017 season and provides some added depth at defensive tackle, one of the thinner positions on the roster.

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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