AMHERST, Mass. - There was a time when Joe Colton had trouble getting on the team bus.
The former walk-on was barely on the UMass football team's depth chart. Too short and too light, Colton projected as a special teamer or, at most, a backup safety. There isn't a lot of room on the bus for a borderline player - for a kid who couldn't get a Division I scholarship offer despite excelling at both Xaverian Brothers High School and then Avon Old Farms.
But the 5-foot-8, 188-pound grinder found a seat when the team went to UConn, and then scored a plane ticket en route to the Big House. Standing near team captain Darren Thellen, Colton racked up 49 tackles, and eventually put his stamp on the season with an interception and blocked punt in UMass' 22-14 win over Akron, the program's first FBS victory.
Soon after, Colton was awarded a full scholarship.
“I don't think I'm going to have to squeeze onto the bus this year,” he said, in a joking-yet-serious tone.
Heading into his second season with the Minutemen, Colton feels that the team is heading in the right direction. He said that things surrounding the program just feel better, that they “just feel Division I.” When asked about how he personally feels, Colton has no problem providing an honest assessment.
“Besides the whole height thing and weight, I feel Division I, too,” he said. “I'm mentally there right now, and that's what the strength of my game has to be. Right now, I feel mentally sharp out there, just making all the calls and helping the defense get aligned.”
Colton knows that year two is going to provide a whole new challenge: Now he has to meet expectations. The sophomore enters the fall as a starter, and UMass head coach Charley Molnar said that he is “right in the mix,” adding that Colton is currently either the second- or third-best safety on the team.
Colton, Khary Bailey-Smith, Devin Brown, Antoine Tharpe, and newcomers Arthur Williams and Hunter Burlinson are all gunning for the same two safety spots. Colton kept returning to the same sentence when asked about the position battle.
“The position isn't promised,” he said, pausing for a moment to let the idea sink in. “This year is much different. I'm coming in here as starter, but I've got to work hard because my position isn't promised. I have to compete every single day to keep this spot.”
One major responsibility for UMass' safety pairing will be filling the gap left behind by Thellen, who graduated in the spring. The Brockton native led the secondary and was often lauded by Molnar as the best player on the team. His stats told the same story.
During the 2012 season, Thellen led the team with three interceptions while recording 79 tackles.
Colton said Thellen left a lasting impression on the group and personally taught him some of the subtle intricacies of the position. He added that, even in his absence, Thellen is a motivating figure.
“We're all just trying to compete, and we all just want to be Darren Thellen out there right now,” he said. “The competition is making us better because we're all trying to grind, and grind, and grind in order to get on the field.”
Colton was quick to praise his new competition. He said that Williams, a Sunshine State freshman, has the athleticism to be a quality safety.
“He really wants to be out there. He's asking questions, and he's asking the most questions during film. He's really long, and he's fast. He gets to the middle of the field fast,” he said, pointing out that the new guy reeled in an interception during practice. “I think they're a good class. They're an athletic bunch, and they're a big bunch.”
With position battles and high expectations on the horizon, it's clear that Colton has earned his keep. However, despite picking up a scholarship and recording nearly 50 tackles as an undersized walk-on, Colton has one major hurdle that he can't seem to clear.
He just can't convince strangers that he's actually on the team.
“Yeah, man it happens all the time. I will be out with other football guys, and they'll say 'We're on the team together,' and some kid won't believe it,” Colton said, shaking his head. “My teammates will tell them that I'm on the team, and I start, but people just don't believe it.
“I just say, 'Alright, I'm not going to fight it,' but it just gives me a little chip on my shoulder.”