Despite the fact that – at least in FBS terms – UMass football is in its infancy, the program itself has a rich history full of great teams and athletes. Earlier this summer we took a look at what I believe to be the four best teams to play for the school. In our ongoing effort to give a little historical background to a program that very few of our readers knew much about, this week we'll be putting up a two-part retrospective on some of the best players of the past twenty years to wear the maroon and white. Part 1 today will focus on the defensive side of the ball.
The Minutemen have traditionally hosted a strong defensive squad. While this list is slanted towards the more recent past, it was these years that UMass really broke out as a consistent national power in the FCS. The team won the then-D1-AA National Championship in 1998, and returned in 2006, due not only to their strong and balanced offensive attack, but also a stingy defense that excelled at frustrating their opposition and creating turnovers. I based these rankings on a semi-scientific method that included statistics, honors and awards, and my own opinions. Keep in mind, these opinions are those of one person, so feel free to disagree/whine/challenge the rankings in the comments below, if you feel so inclined.
5 – Brian Corcoran, DL (1991-1994)
Corcoran was the anchor to a strong defense that performed well despite enduring their longest conference championship drought since the 1950s. In 1994 he was named the Yankee Conference Defensive Player of the Year while leading the team in unassisted tackles, tackles for a loss, and fumble recoveries in addition to being the team's best pass rusher. Corcoran led UMass in sacks both his junior and senior seasons, finishing his career third in school history with 30. He garnered national recognition his senior season, picking up a second-team All-America nod to go with his third straight All-Conference selection. One of the six Minutemen named to the Yankee Conference 50th Anniversary Team in 1996, Corcoran also walked-on to the newly reinstated varsity hockey team in 1993. He went on to play professionally in the American Hockey League after graduating at UMass.
4 – Valdamar Brower, DL (1999-2003)
Another dominating presence on the defensive front, Brower picked up right where Corcoran left off, granted with a few years and one championship between them. After redshirting his freshman year, Brower made an immediate impact, playing in every game his first season and leading the defensive line in tackles. He continued his dominance at the end position his sophomore season, earning first-team All-American honors along the way. Brower switched over to the defensive tackle position for his final two years with the team, being named a second-team All-American and collecting three All-Conference selections before he was done. Brower finished his career at UMass fifth on the school's all-time sacks list while sitting alone in first place for tackles for a loss, quarterback hurries, and blocked kicks. Brower is currently head coach of the Springfield Central Golden Eagles in Springfield, Massachusetts.
3 – Khari Samuel, LB (1995-1998)
Samuel is the first name on the list that was a member of the 1998 National Championship team. One of the best all-around defensive players in school history, Samuel was able to collect three All-Conference selections and one first-team All-American pick in his senior year before all was said and done. That 1998 season was a great one for Samuel, as he was also named Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10 and received the George "Bulger" Lowe Award which is given to the top Division 1 defensive player in New England (FBS included). Samuel's name litters the UMass record books, as he currently sits first in forced fumbles while holding steady at second all-time in three tackles categories – total, solo, and tackles for a loss. Following his UMass career, Samuel was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fifth round of the 1999 draft, and played three seasons in the NFL.
2 – Kole Ayi, LB (1997-2000)
Ayi came into the fold right as teammate and soon-to-be bash brother Khari Samuel was hitting his apex. Ayi would team with Samuel to create one of the more formidable linebacking corps to ever play at UMass. Both backers left with roughly the same amount of hardware as Ayi picked up the Lowe Award in 2000, finished as Buck Buchanan (best defensive player in FCS) runner-up in 1999, and was selected to two first-team All-Conference and two first-team All-America squads. Ayi finished his college career third on UMass's tackle list, first in unassisted tackles, fourth in tackles for a loss, and third in fumble recoveries. What pushed Ayi over the top, however, was his performance in big games. Against Georgia Southern in the 1998 Championship, Ayi recorded 16 tackles, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown in the Minutemen's 55-43 victory. That's clutch.
1 – Shannon James, DB (2001-2005)
Arguably the greatest defensive back to wear Minuteman maroon, Shannon James was a terror to opposing quarterbacks. During his junior and senior seasons, James was the NCAA's active leader in career interceptions and finished up at UMass with 20, good for first all-time. James was chosen as the Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, and also collected two first-team All-America selections and made three All-Conference teams in his tenure. James started every game of his four-year career, and was the most visible leader of the unit that helped UMass win a conference championship and reach the D1-AA playoffs in 2003. To go with his dominance defending the pass, James also sits fourth in school history for solo tackles, fifth in fumbles recovered, and tied for first in fumbles returned for a touchdown. James' presence was felt all over the field whenever he laced up. Following his time in Amherst James spent a few seasons in the CFL, his Calgary Stampeders winning the 2008 Grey Cup due in part to his game-saving interception late in the fourth quarter.
Coming up later this week: The top five offensive players since 1990.