AMHERST — Khary Bailey-Smith and Joe Colton are UMass safeties. They are freshmen. They are Massachusetts natives — Bailey-Smith from Weymouth, Colton from Norwood.
Their Amherst arrivals, however, involve divergent paths.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pound Bailey-Smith, a former high jumper, considered track offers from Connecticut and Pittsburgh. When UMass presented a football scholarship, the former Weymouth High standout accepted the offer.
Colton had no such luck.
Colton didn’t receive any scholarship offers, not after his career at Xaverian nor a postgraduate year at Avon Old Farms. While Bailey-Smith boasts the tall and lean frame of a prospective college football player, the 5-8, 188-pound Colton, by UMass coach Charley Molnar’s eye, resembles a paperboy.
Colton’s appearance may be a reason his only possible landing spots were UMass and UConn, both as a recruited walk-on. Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson cautioned Colton that production didn’t necessarily mean potential.
“I could run for 2,000 yards in high school. I could have all the stats and do everything right,” Colton said. “But when a college recruiter comes to look at you, does he see those separate? Does he see the potential side of it, the intangibles? Are you 6-2, 225, running a 4.6? Or are you like a million other kids who are 5-10, 185 pounds, running 4.5s? Really, when it came down to it, I didn’t have the potential-type look.”
Last Saturday against Akron, both the scholarship winner and the walk-on contributed to UMass’s 22-14 victory, its first in Football Bowl Subdivision competition. Bailey-Smith recorded a second-quarter interception. Colton picked off a fourth-quarter pass. They combined on a blocked punt — Colton did the blocking, Bailey-Smith did the recovering — to set up a field goal.
They were the type of plays by first-year players that signal stronger seasons to come for UMass (1-9, 1-5 Mid-American Conference).
“They know there’s a bright future right around the corner,” Molnar said of his freshmen. “They’re motivated. They’re excited about the athleticism and the pure football ability that’s in their freshman class. The freshmen are very excited about what the future holds for their group. They should be. The other younger guys know if they keep working hard and we continue to hit our markers along the way, they’ll play not only for a winning team, but for a team that’s going to compete for a division title before they graduate.”
Colton’s interception gave the Minutemen the space they needed. With his team trailing, 15-7, Akron quarterback Dalton Williams faded back in his end zone to pass.
Colton, from his Cover-2 formation in the secondary, read that Akron had called a dig route. Linebacker Perry McIntyre was in coverage. Colton, as he’s been taught, was shading over the route.
When Williams’s pass sailed high, Colton was positioned to pick it off and return the ball 16 yards to the Akron 1. Two plays later, quarterback Mike Wegzyn piled into the end zone to give UMass a critical 22-7 lead.
“He was in the right place where he was supposed to be,” said Molnar. “When the ball’s in the air, he’s like a receiver. He just goes and gets it.”
Colton displayed football intelligence on his interception. Earlier in the win, Colton tapped into a cruder asset to block Zach Paul’s punt.
“Those are effort plays,” Molnar said. “You have to be fearless.”
Colton lined up over the middle to blitz through the A-gap. As Paul took the snap, the punter’s protector released into coverage too soon. Before Paul could punt the ball away cleanly, Colton got a piece of the kick. Bailey-Smith scooped up the ball for a 10-yard return to the Akron 5. Five plays later, Blake Lucas nailed a 23-yard field goal to give UMass a 3-0 lead.
Without those plays, UMass might still be winless heading into Saturday’s game against Buffalo at Gillette Stadium.
“Everybody’s really happy now that we got the win,” Bailey-Smith said. “But we’re working hard to get another one. Or another two, hopefully.”
It took several twists to place Bailey-Smith and Colton in their respective positions. Molnar and his coaches recruited Bailey-Smith as a wide receiver. But when training camp opened, after recognizing his roster’s defensive shortcomings, Molnar approached Bailey-Smith about a switch. Bailey-Smith approved. Bailey-Smith has yet to take a collegiate offensive snap.
One of the factors that kept Colton from UConn was the lure of in-state tuition. Also, Colton’s father Robert and uncle Pete spent time at UMass.
But even Joe Colton’s place in summer camp was not guaranteed. It took the suggestion of recruiting coordinator Shane Waldron to secure Colton a camp position.
From the start of camp drills, Colton caught Molnar’s attention.
“He would cover our best receivers, and I’m there yelling, ‘You just got covered by Joey Colton,’ not knowing who he was,” Molnar recalled with a smile. “I meant that as a dig. But after 3-4-5 days of saying it, I started to realize, ‘Wait a minute, he’s covering everybody.’ From that point forward, I realized he was a pretty good football player. Once we put the pads on, he was making tackles all over the place. I likened him the other day to a heat-seeking missile. He just goes. He sees the ball and he just goes.”
The scholarship that has eluded Colton might come. Future wins could also be in the works. Colton will take both.
“When you get a win, everything’s erased,” Colton said. “We got a taste of winning. Going into this game Saturday, we feel like we can win another game. Win the last game, we go out with a bang.”