AMHERST, Mass. - Miami (OH) quarterback Zac Dysert never saw Kassan Messiah coming, and who could blame him for not being on the lookout?
(Kassan Messiah/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket)
Three games into the 2012 season, UMass' freshman outside linebacker had never played a college down, and Dysert likely spent most of the week preparing for the likes of safety Darren Thellen and middle linebacker Perry McIntyre. So, when Messiah broke through Miami's line and sacked the Redhawks' signal caller for his first collegiate tackle, there was a moment when everyone cocked their heads, pointed and said, “Who's that?”
Messiah made the most of that late-September game and recorded 10 tackles, defended a pass and picked up two tackles for loss. From then on, everyone knew Messiah, but that didn't mean they could slow him down.
The Orange, N.J. native led all Mid-American Conference freshmen in total tackles (65) and was one of UMass' top run-stopping linebackers.
Heading into the 2013 season, there has been a lot of talk about Messiah stepping in at defensive end. However, don't tell Phil Elmassian that. UMass' defensive coordinator is adamant about Messiah's position.
“He's an outside linebacker, he is not a defensive end. In the 4-3, he's a stand-up linebacker and an outside guy,” Elmassian said. “Sometimes in a third-down situation, we're going to have him blitzing off the edge, and I guess you could call him a defensive end there, but he's an outside linebacker. The kid is not going to have his hand in the dirt. He is definitely an outside linebacker.”
Elmassian said Messiah is perfect for the roving position due to his length and added that he doesn't have enough bulk (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) to be an every-down, hand-in-the-dirt defensive lineman. He said Messiah's length is “absolutely perfect” for UMass' 4-3 and praised the sophomore for what he does off the field.
“I mean, woof, his work ethic is just something else,” he said.
Messiah is happy with the added responsibility. During the 2012 season, he primarily stayed off the line and was often off the field when the Minutemen lined up in the Nickle. He said his tweener role will let him “just run around out there and let loose” on opposing defenses.
He added that he isn't concerned with individual numbers or accolades – he just wants to win.
“It's all about the team. We didn't have such a good year last year even though I did pretty well individually. This year I'm looking forward to getting better every day and watching the team get better,” he said. “You can just see the difference out there man. Everyone is just coming together. They're just bigger, stronger and faster. We all have a lot of confidence and we're building our swagger, and that's going to come out during the season.”
While Messiah is the odds-on favorite to grab one of the two outside positions, there is a sudden glut of talent at the linebacker spot. UMass added three linebackers in the 2013 class – Shane Huber, Steve Casali and Peter Ngobidi – who will compete with Messiah, Stanley Andre, Jovan Santos-Knox, John Robinson, Tom Brandt and Vondell Langston for time.
UMass coach Charley Molnar is pretty happy with the arrangement.
“We have the kind of depth that every good defense has. We're not overloading, we just have a number of guys that can get the job done, and that's a good place to be,” he said.
Messiah praised the new guys but said that everyone on the team still needs to prove themselves.
“You always have to prove yourself. You have to prove yourself every day. The guys they brought in are good. I think coach did a great job. They brought in a great bunch of guys, and a great bunch of football guys. They're good people,” he said.
With a 1-11 campaign behind them, the Minutemen are not getting too much respect from college football experts. Nearly every preseason magazine has UMass rated last in the MAC.
Messiah doesn't want to say much, but noted that the low expectations are fueling the team.
“There are a lot of naysayers out there. We don't respond to it, but we definitely do hear it. We take it as motivation, and we want to prove them wrong,” he said. “I think we're going to shock the world.”
Finding a Spot: Elmassian said that Ngobidi is still in the process of finding a position and may redshirt this season if he doesn't play on special teams. Ngobidi, a Bay State recruit, was a tweener at Catholic Memorial High School, and UMass coaches were impressed with his athleticism.
“He's a good player. He was more of a rush-the-passer player in high school, and he came to our camp running a 4.6 and jumped 35 inches. We're going to work with him. He's a Massachusetts guy, he has those numbers, and we're taking him,” he said. “With him, it's still a matter of knowing where he will play. Is he an inside or outside guy? I don't know. He's too small to put his hand in the dirt. We'll probably redshirt him unless he goes special teams.”
Andre the Giant: Stanley Andre is going to be asked to fill the gap left behind by Perry McIntyre, who led the team with 132 tackles. Andre was a defensive end last year by necessity and will have to re-adjust to the linebacker position.
Elmassian is pretty confident in his ability to do so.
“This guy is on pace, right now here today, to be better. He may never make all-league, but I'm telling you that he's on pace to be as productive – or better – than (McIntyre),” he said. “That doesn't mean he's going to be, but that's what he's on pace to do.”