LAS CRUCES, NM—With about four minutes left on the clock, and UMass within reach of an historic victory, 11 players jogged onto the field for a critical defensive stand. A year ago, four of those 11 Minutemen were practicing four hours west along Interstate 10, at Arizona.
Of the 30 or so UA players who entered the NCAA transfer portal this past offseason, eight ended up together at the unlikeliest of places, on the roster of an independent East Coast program that hadn’t won more than one game in a season since 2018 and never more than four since moving to the FBS level in 2012.
But also at UMass was head coach Don Brown, who was Arizona’s defensive coordinator in 2021 during Jedd Fisch’s first season in charge.
“I coached all those guys,” Brown said after his team’s 41-30 win at New Mexico State, the program’s first road victory in five years and first against an FBS team to open a season since 1984. “And the natural affinity is, when you make a change, sometimes that becomes an important fact. Jedd Fisch is an outstanding football coach. And I’m telling you, I didn’t go poach Jedd Fisch’s deal. It just happened by circumstance.”
Of those eight ex-Wildcats, six made the cross-country trip to Las Cruces and five played. Wide receiver Anthony Simpson, linebacker Jerry Roberts and cornerback Isaiah Rutherford all started, while defensive lineman JB Brown and linebacker Tyler Martin came off the bench and were on the field for a late series that ended with a fumble recovery to seal the win.
The victory was more or less in the bag a few minutes earlier when Rutherford, who started nine games for the UA from 2021-22, came off his defender and stepped in front of a pass, returning it 55 yards for a touchdown to make it 34-17 with 6:40 left.
Rutherford was the last of the former Arizona players to end up at Amherst, entering the portal after going through spring ball in Tucson and then graduating. That was necessary, since Rutherford had already gotten his one free transfer when he went from Notre Dame to the UA.
He showed up at UMass in mid-July but had no trouble assimilating, both because he already knew several of his teammates and because of his familiarity with Brown’s defense.
“I kind of pretty much knew maybe 90 percent of the playbook already, so it was just going in and just getting a refresher,” Rutherford said. “Since I met (Brown) in 2021, he’s just been a huge mentor to me and my family. My parents love him, everyone in my family loves him. I love him, the players love him. Old coaches, old staff that are still here love him, so it says a lot about him and the type of guy he is.”
Like Brown and Roberts, Rutherford is on his third program and in his final year of college football. But for Martin and Simpson, UMass provided a chance to go back home and make a bigger contribution after limited (or no opportunities) at Arizona.
“I was just looking somewhere I could contribute more to the team all around, and somewhere that fit my game and allow me to try to be a leader that I’m trying to be for a football team,” said Simpson, who scored UMass’ first TD on a 10-yard fly sweep and finished with 92 all-purpose yards. “I feel like I’m a guy that a lot of guys all follow behind me.”
Simpson was one of two prep players the UA signed after Fisch was hired in December 2021, a 3-star athlete from Connecticut, a “complete dude” that Brown personally recruited after joining the Wildcats as defensive coordinator. He played in 20 games, with four starts, but mostly contributed on special teams.
At UMass, Simpson was one of seven offensive players, along with former Clemson/Georgia Tech quarterback Taison Phommachanh and the entire offensive line, to play all 54 snaps.
Martin was also a Don Brown recruit at Arizona, almost by birthright. A 3-star prospect from Cambridge, Mass. that Brown initially offered in eighth grade when coaching at Michigan.
“At such a young age I developed a really good relationship with him, and pretty much going throughout high school all my intentions were to play for Coach Brown,” said Martin, who redshirted with Arizona in 2022. “I felt really comfortable with him. I felt comfortable with what he kind of envisioned me playing in his defense. And when he came back to UMass, so close to my home, and wanting to come back to the East Coast ... there’s nothing better than being able to play in front of your family and friends every weekend when you’re at home game. So that was kind of a no brainer.”
Brown was officially hired as UMass’ head coach less than a month before Early Signing Day in 2021, but Martin still chose to honor his commitment to Arizona. He never saw the field, and last December entered the portal and immediately reached out to Brown.
“I wanted to give myself an opportunity to go see and how Arizona would work out,” Martin said. “Obviously, thinks happen for reasons, and I’m back with Coach Brown where I should be.”
Martin had UMass’ highest overall defensive grade against New Mexico State, per Pro Football Focus, at 77.4, logging four tackles and getting credited with a QB hurry and a QB pressure. He played 31 of 65 snaps, operating as both a stand-up defensive lineman and linebacker.
Brown, who turned 68 last month, has been coaching football since 1977. His first head-coaching gig was at Division III Plymouth State in 1993, and he also led Northeastern and UMass (when it was an FCS program) in the early 2000s before being a defensive coordinator at Maryland, UConn, Boston College, Michigan and then Arizona.
His entire career had been close to his family before Fisch lured him to Tucson. He hadn’t intended his stay there to be so short, but couldn’t resist one last chance to be in charge.
“I loved my time in Arizona. Absolutely loved it,” Brown said. “I had a great boss. I worked with great dudes. But bottom line is, I’m also a grandfather of 11 and a father of four. Think about that for a minute. And I have a chance to be a head coach again. I didn’t leave Jedd to go be a defensive coordinator at UCLA. I didn’t do that.”