UMass linebacker corps being reshaped into versatile, aggressive unit

  • UMass linebacker Gerrell Jonson led the Minutemen with 80 tackles last season. He and the rest of UMass’ defense is adjusting to Don Brown’s scheme. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Rutgers transfer Zukudo Igwenagu right, attacks a drill while UMass outside linebackers coach Mike McCary observes at spring football practice Tuesday in Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • UMass outside linebackers coach Mike McCray, left, delivers instrucitns during a drill Tuesday at spring football practice in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • UMass linebacker Nahji Logan, right, attacks a drill with UMass defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski at spring football practice Tuesday in Amherst.  STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2022 5:51:12 PM
Modified: 4/26/2022 5:49:43 PM

AMHERST – UMass could start recruiting chameleons to play outside linebacker.

While the Minutemen’s inside linebackers will follow traditional roles of moving forward from the defensive backfield to stop the run or dropping back into coverage, their outside backers could do three different things on – ideally – three separate downs. They might have their hand in the dirt rushing the passer one play, then be in the box stopping running plays the next. Vipers, one of Don Brown's specialty roles, can track all the way back to a safety spot and contribute to all levels of the defense.

“We can move all those guys around. They’re all very talented, athletic, so they can all do them all. That’s a good thing for us,” UMass outside linebackers coach Mike McCray said. “You can do whatever. We do a little bit of everything.”

The linebacker corps needed as much work as any position group at the start of spring practice. Brown singled out the need for more linebackers in his introductory press conference. UMass gave up among the most rushing yards in the country last season, 235.3 per game (fifth worst). That's not entirely on linebackers, a three to four yard run can also be attributed to the defensive line, but anything to the second level and potentially beyond means bad angles or missed tackles. The Minutemen gave up 5.8 yards per carry to opposing rushers and allowed at least a 20-yard run in every game.

Brown, defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski, and McCray had functionally a blank slate when they began working with the group. 

Seven linebackers return this season led by Gerrell Johnson, whose 80 tackles (29 solo) paced the team. Rutgers transfer Zukudo Igwenagu, a tight end for the Scarlet Knights whose cousin Emil played tight end for the Minutemen, has stepped in and impacted drills with his physicality. UMass also signed six players listed as linebackers in its 2022 class.

The team will shift from last season’s 3-4 defense to Brown’s 4-3 blitz forward scheme.

“We’ve improved a lot. It’s the fundamentals. Week 1, the fundamentals, I’m gonna be honest, were awful,” McCray said. “Now you can tell that they’re honing in on them, that they’re picking it up. You can see it day to day.”

McCray may be the best person to reach those fundamentals. He played the position under Brown and Dudzinski at Michigan, amassing 162 tackles (30½ for loss) with 9½ sacks in 38 games. The Trotwood, Ohio, native intercepted two passes, forced a fumble and scored a touchdown with a blocked kick. McCray participated in the 2018 NFL Draft combine and signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent.

He retired two days before training camp began and joined Michigan's staff as an intern and eventually defensive analyst. UMass is his first time as a position coach.

“I ran this same defense at Michigan. I know it like the back of my hand. I’m learning how to be a coach while I’m coaching as well,” McCray said.

Johnson and the rest of the linebackers have adjusted to the change in scheme comfortably. The Washington, D.C., native still views his job as the same.

“It’s pretty much the same, just running to the ball playing with aggression,” Johnson said. “Hitting people in the mouth.”

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

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