For Massachusetts linebacker Tyler Holmes, preseason honors are all well and good, but leading the defense in his first year as team captain is a more exciting notion.
The Blacksburg, Va. native has been garnering a lot of attention in the offseason and for good reason. As a true sophomore last season, Holmes led the Minutemen in tackles with 11 per game, interceptions with four and passes defended with nine. His 110 tackles also ranked second in the Colonial Athletic Association and eighth in NCAA. For his efforts, he was named to the 2009 CAA All-Conference Second Team.
It's no surprise that the expectations are higher heading into the 2010 season. Holmes was named to the Preseason All-CAA team, the Sports Network Preseason Second Team, the Phil Steele Magazine CAA First Team as well as the Preseason All-American Third Team and is also a Preseason Honorable Mention All-American by Consensus Draft Services.
"It's been great," Holmes said at media day. "As a player, you always want to receive things for your achievements. But also, preseason awards mean nothing, you still have to go out and perform. Hopefully I can live up to all the hype."
The accolades have not been lost on UMass head coach Kevin Morris, who knows he has an up-and-coming stalwart on the defensive side of the ball.
"Tyler's come along and he's got a lot of press in the preseason for All-American and rightfully so," Morris said. "He's a true sophomore and now he's going to be a true junior and he's getting all these awards."
Already into the season, Holmes has displayed his anticipated skill and proven to be a defensive presence in the back field.
In the first game of the season against William & Mary, Holmes earned CAA Defensive Player of the Week after his dominating performance. Not only did Holmes have 10 tackles in the contest, but he also nabbed the interception that put away the game for the Minutemen.
In the recent victory over Holy Cross, Holmes stopped the ball six times and intercepted the ball for the second time in two games.
Holmes has become a leader in only his third year in the program, which is why Morris and the team named him captain for this season along with rising red-shirt junior Emil Igwenagu.
"For him to be named captain, he's such a good player on the field and he does everything right the first time off the field," Morris said. "He's a guy we can rally around because he's going to make plays for us and he's going to lead us in the right way in the locker room."
The last junior to be named a team captain for UMass was defensive lineman Brandon Collier in 2008. Before Collier, it was linebacker Serge Tikum in 2004.
"It was great, you know there aren't many junior captains out there," Holmes said of the honor. "I think my teammates look at me for leadership and I hope I can provide that for them."
Along with being named a captain, Holmes will be the leader of the defense this season at the Mike linebacker position. The Mike, or the middle linebacker, is responsible for organizing the defensive line and is the quarterback to the defense.
Holmes realizes he will have added responsibility this year, but won't be alone as a leader at linebacker.
"It's going to be a tough task but I'm willing to take it on with force," Holmes said. "We have a lot of veterans in the linebacker core. Mike Mele, he started two years at Syracuse so he makes the job a lot easier and helps me out a lot."
Mele enters his second and final season with the Minutemen and will have an expanded role after seeing limited action last year. He played in only three games in 2009 but made good contributions, recording 11 tackles and recovering a fumble. Along with seeing time at Mike, Mele is expected to play the Sam, or strong side linebacker position. He'll help Holmes settle into handling the full reigns of the defense as the captain works on becoming more vocal.
As a defense last season, UMass ranked in the middle of the pack compared to the rest of the CAA. Though there weren't many glaring weaknesses, what really stood out was the lack of take-aways. The Minutemen were tied with Northeastern with a conference-worst seven recovered fumbles, while intercepting 13 passes.
When asked of the goals this year for the defense, Holmes was quick to emphasize a need for ball-hawking.
"I know we're going to get a lot more stops this year," Holmes said. "Definitely a couple more shutouts, force more turnovers."
Holmes had a less specific expectation for the team, but a confident one nonetheless.
"As a team overall, just get to the playoffs and make some noise."