UMass football’s young defensive line coming together

  • Joe Previte (61) will be asked to anchor UMass’ defensive line in his senior season in the fall. THOMAS KENDALL—THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Joe Previte (61) and Jake Byczko (97) are being counted on to play key roles on the UMass defensive line in 2018. UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Freshman defensive lineman Jake Byczko will try to build off of a promising freshman year in 2018. UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Sophomore Leon Flanagan Jr. will try to build of strong year as a reserve in 2017 when he becomes a starter in 2018. THOMAS KENDALL—THOM KENDALL FOR UMASS ATHLETICS

Published: 3/27/2018 10:08:04 PM

AMHERST — Joe Previte is the old man now.

On a UMass football roster that’s experienced in most position groups, the defensive line stands out as a group with both new players and returning players in new roles, as 2017 starters Da’Sean Downey, Sha-ki Holines and Ali Ali-Musa, as well as reserve Rod Jones Jr., all graduated.

Previte, a fifth-year senior who started all 12 games last year, has more experience than the rest of the group combined.

“Joe Previte has had a great spring. He’s really been a leader with the way he’s worked,” UMass coach Mark Whipple said. “Joe has always worked really hard. He got a lot quicker. He really understands things defensively and is playing at a really high level right now.”

Previte, the 6-foot-2, 265-pound Brockton native, is embracing his increased role.

“Going on my fifth year, I have a much different role. I’m not really a vocal, guy, but I’ll get the guys fired up. We have a lot of young guys stepping up. I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “We lost three starters, so we have to work harder than any other group to do our job.”

Other than Previte, the first string has one career start between them.

Sophomore Leon Flanagan Jr., the owner of that one start (at Coastal Carolina), showed promise last year as a reserve. His sack and interception at BYU were critical to UMass’ signature win last year.

“I feel way more confident going into this season. I’m trying to perfect my craft as best as I can, said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Staten Island, N.Y. product. “We look at this year as time for us to step up and realize our time is coming.”

Jake Byczko is in a similar place. He didn’t start as a true freshman but appeared in every game on defense and special teams in 2017. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Auburn native had 10 tackles against Old Dominion and 23 overall.

“It’s definitely getting easier. Getting snaps last season and learning from Sha-Ki really helped. I learned a lot that I can translate into this coming season,” he said. “Playing against teams like Tennessee and seeing the speed of the game and the strength of the linemen, I can see how much I need to weigh and how strong I need to be. I’m setting goals for myself so I can be better,”

Freshman Chris DiTommaso, who redshirted in the fall, has been a pleasant surprise so far. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound New Jersey native has been playing with the ones at nose tackle.

“He’s smart. He understands the defense,” Whipple said. “He’s unselfish, a hard worker. He’s getting better every day.”

Defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham agreed.

“Chris DiTommaso has done a nice job,” Pinkham said. “He’s holding his gap. He’s been pretty consistent. I’ve been pleased with him.”

Whipple said despite the youth and lack of starting experience, in some ways, this group will be more experienced in the system that last year’s was. Pinkham was hired before last spring and neither Holines nor Ali-Musa practiced in the spring. Obviously nobody had played any games in the system before last year.

The 2018 team will have three starters and reserve Mario Patton, who have seen action in the system. Other than Patton, who is out with an undisclosed injury, the entire defensive line will have practice in the system this spring.

“We’re way ahead of where we were,” Whipple said. “We lose some of those guys up front and they were good players. But they were new to the system.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at


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