By Matthew Schultz, sports writer, The Natick Nest
Natick’s storied high school football program has produced some incredibly talented players throughout the years including Brian Dunlap, Troy Flutie, and of course, Doug Flutie. These players got recognition not only at the collegiate level, but also professionally. Even in the past five years, standouts like Jakobi Holiday, Jalyn Aponte, and Will Lederman accepted scholarships to collegiate programs. However, very few have enjoyed the same success and opportunity as Josh Atwood.
Standing at 6’3’’ and weighing just over 330 pounds, Atwood towered over his high school opponents and used his size to his advantage as he wreaked havoc on both offense and defense for Natick. He tallied incredible numbers for an interior lineman in his Junior and Senior years. As a junior in 2018, he racked up 65 tackles, including 17 tackles for loss (TFL), an absurd 11 sacks and three forced fumbles. He finished his varsity career with 179 tackles, 42 TFLs, 12.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles. Despite putting up incredible numbers and having a build that would attract recruiters from high-level Division 1 programs, Atwood was somewhat slept on as he was ranked as a three-star defensive lineman on 247sports.com. Earning interest from schools like Wake Forest, UConn, and Bryant, Atwood eventually committed to the only official offer he received, UMass Amherst.
For most incoming collegiate athletes, the transition from high school to college level preparation is a shock. While high school teams spend an hour or two watching film together (with individual watching sprinkled in), the main focus of preparation is in practice due to focusses directed towards academics. However, Atwood had the pleasure of being coached by former Assumption Football linebacker Nick DiAntonio. While known for his “meathead” and hard hitting attitude, in my recent interview Atwood mentions that Coach DiAntonio gave him a glimpse of college football “in terms of watching film and applying that to practice and games”. Even so, Atwood says the transition from high school to college, in terms of film, was difficult as he “spends hours daily just to keep up.” Since very few players from Natick High play college ball, the film aspect of football may not be emphasized compared to private school programs where athletics may take precedence over academics.
Atwood’s first two years at UMass didn’t make the transition any easier as COVID-19 altered his experiences with the new program heavily. In the 2020 season, UMass only scheduled four total games and despite being a true freshman, Atwood appeared in all four. Playing defensive tackle, he notched 6 total tackles through four games and was a bright spot for the struggling UMass defense. Despite giving up over 40 points per game, the rush defense stood out with Atwood clogging the middle, especially against Florida Atlantic where UMass held them to under 150 rushing yards, a season low and Atwood’s best game totaling 3 stops.
With the NCAA allowing an extra year of eligibility, Atwood gladly accepted and entered his second season as a freshman. Despite their defense once again ranking at the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), going 1-11, and enduring a change at the head coach position, Atwood continued to stand out on the subpar Minuteman defense. Totaling 27 tackles through 11 starts, Atwood once again put up respectable numbers as a run stopper, a position meant to take up space rather than get tackles. Yet, the UMass coaching staff knew they weren’t getting everything they could out of the Natick native.
Making the switch
Going into the 2022 season, Atwood made the switch from defense to offense and attempted to anchor the UMass offensive line by playing center. While he never played center in high school, the O-Line was a familiar place for Atwood. Due to his sheer size, Atwood excelled at offensive tackle for the Redhawks, protecting his former quarterback Will Lederman’s blindside. Even so, the center position takes on much more responsibility and is widely regarded as one of the hardest positions in football. The switch seemed risky, but Atwood handled it just fine. When asked what helped him adapt to playing the O-line in college, Atwood explained that having collegiate experience as a defensive lineman and “knowing all the defensive assignments” allowed him to think faster and mesh well with the offense. Atwood also mentioned that having defensive experience helped him “reduce the amount of overthinking” by “ruling out certain tendencies” of a defensive lineman which made the game “a whole lot easier.”
By working hard throughout the offseason and applying his defensive knowledge to the other side of the ball, Atwood successfully made the switch from offense to defense. He started in all 12 games in 2022, helping propel UMass’s increasingly successful and reliable run game. While there weren’t many wins, Atwood and the O-line anchored small victories including an average of just under 148 rushing yards per game, good for 67th in the FBS and up 5 spots from 72nd in 2021. After having a few months to digest the season, I asked Atwood whether offense or defense was more difficult. Instead of picking sides, he acknowledged the difficulties of both, mentioning that offense is much more “technical” and “focus” based while defense is a “different animal” requiring better instincts and physicality. As he has had a noticeable impact on the offense, Atwood hopes to continue his success there and improve his pass blocking, his favorite aspect of the O-line.
Despite being a massive state school and having a decently large recruiting program, many analysts argue that UMass shouldn’t play at the FBS level and should at the very least be moved down to the Football Conference Subdivision (FCS), formerly known as Division I – AA. However, the incredible competition that UMass faces has helped develop its players substantially, especially those with dreams of the NFL, including Atwood. He explains that the goal of reaching professional football “pushes [him] to try and be perfect everyday”, leading to “better practices” and “better games”. Atwood also says he has begun to develop traits of “acting like a pro” and improving his routine as well as discipline.
Players like Daymond Williams of UBuffalo have contributed to Atwood’s development. With outstanding “strength and athleticism,” Atwood mentions Williams was one of the best players he faced all year. Atwood also had the chance to face the former number one recruit in the United States in Texas A&M defensive tackle Walter Nolen. What seemed like a complete mismatch between Texas A&M (which had the top recruiting class of 2021) and UMass ended up being a relatively close game. Atwood contained Nolen’s violent hands and pass rush arsenal to 0 sacks. High-level competition like Nolen (a predicted first round pick) helps prospects like Atwood polish his skills and get better each week in pursuit of the pros.
As Atwood approaches his final years of college football, he has the entire town of Natick rooting for him. Even though he graduated in 2020, coaches from the Natick Redhawks still recall the pure domination of Josh throughout his high school years and positional coaches teach techniques that Atwood perfected himself. No matter what Atwood’s future holds, his influence over the future generation of Natick football players holds strong.
Natick Report has begun working with The Natick Nest, Natick High School’s official student-run school newspaper, to help bring the students’ work to a larger audience. We’ll be republishing some of their articles, and plan to coordinate with their staff on additional pieces.
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