AMHERST — Justin Moore laughed to himself while standing in the paint.
He and the rest of his Catholic DeMatha teammates hadn’t had to play much defense yet in the 2018 WCAC basketball semifinals because Josh Wallace chased the opposing 94-foot point guard all game.
“He was their best player in the semi-finals. The guy couldn’t get the ball through the half. He was struggling to put the team in his place, and he was their best player,” Moore, now a senior on Villanova’s basketball team, said “We’re all sitting in the paint looking like ‘oh my god. He’s in on it. It’s made it so much easier for us.” . »
It’s UMass football junior cornerback Josh Wallace, to be clear. His back-pedalling, mark-shading moves almost mirrored the way he covers receivers for the Minutemen.
“At the corner, it’s like when you keep somebody on top of the key,” Wallace said. “You just want to create angles for them, you don’t want them going around you.”
He spent his last two years of high school at one of the nation’s top basketball powerhouses – DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md. The Stags went 64-10 during his tenure and won the championship from Washington Catholic Athletic Conference when he was a junior, one of the toughest high school basketball conferences in the country. Moore was one of the top 100 players in the country. Center Hunter Dickinson played at Michigan. Jahmir Young Jr. started out in Charlotte before moving to Maryland. Earl Timberlake Jr. started out in Memphis before moving to Bryant.
“Every day was competitive,” Wallace said. “Top 100 guys, so you just had to work every day.”
He transferred to DeMatha before his junior season after playing both the basketball court and the football field at St. Mary’s Annapolis. Wallace was the de facto No. 1 option and scored over 20 points per game in addition to being the team’s best defenseman.
“It says a lot about who Josh is as a young man that he came in and accepted that he wasn’t the guy who had to score and shoot all the time because he knew who was around him,” said Mike Jones, then DeMatha’s trainer, now. assistant at Virginia Tech. “He just wanted to win. Whatever we needed him to win, that’s what he was ready to do.
Wallace didn’t even play football in his freshman year, instead focusing on college and basketball. He quickly defined his role as a defensive stopper, distributor and sticker.
“It’s one of the most important jobs you can have for a team, this guy who sticks his body, all his personal goals aside and does what the team needs. We had a lot of talent and for him to come and get 94-foot guys, get deflects, steals…that was huge for us,” Jones said. “He just wants the best for the people around him.”
DeMatha needed a player like that to allow the talent he carried to thrive in space and not back down from the top prospects he regularly faced. Wallace and his teammates faced three of the top 25 teams in the nation as a junior and the top two teams in the nation (IMG Academy and La Lumière) his senior season. Their opponents included future NBA players RJ Barrett (Montverde Academy), Wendell Moore Jr. (Cox Mill), Isaac Okoro (McEachern), Josh Green (IMG), Cole Anthony and Moses Brown (Archbishop Molloy) as well as a almost endless list of future top Division I players. Those years included two trips to the HoopHall Classic in Springfield.
“Kept (Barrett) some possessions. It was a different game,” Wallace said. “It was fun, though.”
His own talent and proximity to so much star power also brought attention to Wallace. He had offers from James Madison, the University of Maryland in Baltimore County and St. Joseph’s, as well as interests from George Mason, UNC Greensboro and VCU, according to the Washington Post.
“He was a huge reason why we were so good the two years he played for us,” Jones said. “Certainly could have been a Division I basketball player if he chose.”
The allure of football, however, never waned.
“I liked him more,” Wallace said.
He always watched YouTube videos at lunch. One day he was watching a football clip and a football coach saw him and invited him to come and train with the team. From this first training, the staff knew what type of player he was and could be.
“Literally the very first practice he attended, all the football coaches came up to me and said ‘hey, this kid can go anywhere he wants in football. He’s so good. I went’ really ?After a day? They were like ‘yes, he has it,’ Jones said. “He also played basketball that year, but maybe from the first day he walked on the court with our football team, everyone pretty much knew that if they wanted football would be their ticket.”
DeMatha provided a decent box office. The Stags went 8-3 and reached the second round of the playoffs. Wallace sparked interest in football recruiting, but some of those coaches shied away because of his keen basketball acumen.
“A lot of coaches thought I was just going to play basketball,” Wallace said.
Former UMass assistant Aazaar Abdul-Rahim (now at Boston College) and head coach Walt Bell (Indiana’s offensive coordinator) bet on Wallace’s potential. Fellow receiver Jermaine “OC” Johnson signing up for the Minutemen also helped sway Wallace.
He joined UMass for the 2019 season but received training in 2020 when the season was briefly canceled before being restarted. All the time spent in quarantine has given Wallace time to adjust and study after moving so quickly from high school and AAU basketball to college football.
“It was pretty quick to play college football, to adapt to it,” Wallace said. “This COVID year has luckily helped me, learning a bit about things.”
Don Brown taking over the UMass football program, defense and defensive packs in particular, placed Wallace in a football masters program. He helped Wallace understand defenses as a whole rather than just his particular position group. Wallace had never paid attention to the defensive line before or the gap they are supposed to be in. Learning from Brown crystallized the synergy between position groups.
“He is very receptive to coaching, takes coaching. You know, that’s the script that young people don’t always have or represent anymore,” Brown said. “This guy wants to be coached. He wants to improve. Obviously I think he’s been playing pretty well, especially in the last few weeks. He’s around the ball.
Wallace ranks second on the team with 19 tackles and first with four pass breakups. He had an athletic diving interception against Stony Brook and is one of four team captains. Wallace occasionally shoots rims at the UMass Recreation Center but no longer considers himself a basketball player.
“I don’t really look back anymore,” Wallace said. “Kindly put him to bed.”
However, he is still part of the DeMatha basketball fraternity. His former teammates and coaches catch UMass games when they can and follow him. Jones was going to attend the Minutemen’s contest against Temple at Lincoln Financial Field last weekend, but couldn’t leave Virginia Tech because the Hokies had rookies on campus.
“One of the coolest things I think is Josh on the football field looks huge. He’s 6-foot-6, 6-1, whatever. Well, on the basketball court, he’s one of the smallest guys on the pitch,” Jones said. “To see him as a defensive back and a goalie, he looks huge. He looks so big. It’s amazing when I’m able to see that.
He found the sport where he stood out rather than blended in.
Kyle Grabowski can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.