It seems like the Spring Game was just yesterday.
Way back then, UMass had a different quarterback, a different running back and an offense that consisted of two plays: a weird pass to the flats and a handoff-to-fake-pass play that immediately captured the hearts of all those in attendance.
Now, just a few short months later, the Minutemen may have a found their future starting quarterback and have slowly showed improvement on the offensive side of the ball. The yards per game have gone up, the running game (when used correctly) has piled up yards, and the offensive line appears to be gelling despite the assimilation of new faces.
Best of all, the handoff-to-fake-pass is still very much with us, and with any luck it will never leave.
The Minutemen are every bit of their 0-6 record. They got crushed out of the gates and have been spending the past three weeks trying to settle in among its new MAC peers. Its most recent setback had UMass fans scratching their heads: “Where did the improvement go?”
The fact of the mater is that UMass is improving, but in stark contrast to the team’s namesake, this whole thing is going to take time. An already short-staffed roster has been hit hard by attrition and injury. Freshmen are seeing significant playing time only a year after cutting their teeth on high school fields. The line between a close loss and a blowout is as thin as UMass’ scant depth chart.
An FCS team has been thrown to the lions, and it’s doing what it can to get a punch in.
Below are some thoughts I’ve had through UMass’ first six weeks as an FBS program:
UMass ‘Fans’ are Predictable: Thousands of dollars have gone into the FBS upgrade, and countless chips have fallen in UMass’ favor. The Minutemen finally made the move that hundreds of alumni have clamored for during the past three decades. UMass hired Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator, put together an impressive recruiting class and paid top dollar for a marketing blitz that has permeated the biggest city in the Bay State. The school has literally walked into the living rooms of its supposedly proud alumni base and said, “We’re here, come join us.” The UMass faithful responded with a collective shoulder shrug. The UMass football team is being outdrawn by nearly every team in the MAC, outside of Akron and Eastern Michigan. Akron is historically bad and Eastern Michigan lives next to the Big House. What’s UMass’ excuse?
Someone Needs to Hit a QB: Quarterbacks throughout the MAC are starting to look at UMass games like vacation days. Through six games, the Minutemen have only recorded six sacks. That’s right, one sack a game. UMass is dealing with injuries and turnover at linebacker, and the defensive line is still trying to find game-to-game continuity, but at some point someone is going to have to step up. My gut tells me that Stanley Andre will pick it up in the second half of the season. Andre was originally a linebacker but made the move to defensive end this season. He has a sturdy build for a defensive end and has the athleticism to shed blockers. It’s easy to forget that this is Andre’s first season as an every-week starter.
Mike Cox May Get 1,000, but What’s Next?: Graduate student running back Mike Cox has been both the victim of an unsteady scheme and the beneficiary of a run-first attack. With a few more games like he had against Miami (OH) and Ohio, Cox could eclipse the 1,000-yard mark this season – a feat that would surprise many UMass fans (particularly those that saw this offense in its infancy at the Spring Game). Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, one question looms: Who takes over when Cox graduates? Jordan Broadnax has been a steady contributor as a kick returner, but absent an unexpected growth spurt, he doesn’t seem to fit Molnar’s scheme. After Broadnax, it’s anyone’s guess. Stacey Bedell was considered by most to be a major “get” at running back, but he has only carried the ball a handful of times and suffered an injury to his left arm. Bedell may very well be the heir apparent, but he desperately needs to add size. Call me crazy, but I could see Daquan Mack making noise if and when he signs with UMass.
Meanwhile, at Quarterback: The quarterback situation seems to be settled, for the moment. Mike Wegzyn has done a pretty remarkable job picking up the new offense and showing signs of progression each and every week. After the UConn game, during the press conference, Wegzyn looked like a kid that had just walked out of his first haunted house. After Michigan, he looked like a guy that just got his ass kicked and was mad about it. Now he looks like a Division I quarterback. That doesn’t mean A.J. Doyle is out of the picture, yet. Doyle has shown a great deal of confidence during his time under center. Much like Wegzyn, Doyle isn’t afraid to run. However, in limited time, he does appear to force the ball a bit. That may just be a result of wanting to make something happen with a small amount of playing time. UMass fans should be happy with this combo. Both quarterbacks look like tough kids that are willing to fight for the position.
Recruiting is Going Well: If graduation is the only means of attrition, the Minutemen will lose 14 players next year. Of those, well more than half are consistent producers for this year’s team. One major concern heading into the offseason is offensive line depth. According to the verbal commitments coming in, it seems like that problem is being addressed. The Minutemen already have six possible linemen and each has Division I size. UMass is also stocking up on linebackers and have three kids that can and should make a difference early. There is also a Florida receiver and a physically enormous quarterback on board. I would look for more skill players to surface soon. Molnar and his staff are already looking at Rust Belt wide receivers and have been making strong pushes toward Pennsylvania running backs.
Speaking of Recruiting, Fans are Crazy: Let me put this plea out to everyone that reads my blog: Please, please do not actively recruit high school athletes on Twitter. Sure, re-tweet them or follow them, but do yourself and UMass a favor and don’t attempt to sway their decision. I have seen way too many fans (particularly from Penn State) relentlessly go after kids on Twitter. No player that the Minutemen are recruiting gets this more than Roman Clay, a Pennsylvania-based running back. As soon as Penn State was rumored to show interest, several fans started selling Happy Valley. It is a horribly tacky thing for any fan to do. Remember that these are 16- or 17-year-old kids trying to make an important decision.
Seriously, What is Happening at Kicker?: At first I thought the kicking situation was some sort of football joke. Molnar went out and brought in all sorts of preferred walk-ons and walk-ons to sure up a kicking game that had been, to be kind, embarrassing. Colter Johnson stepped in as punter and, while somewhat erratic at first, has been pretty dependable. Brendon Levengood has been taking kickoffs and doing a nice job. Then there’s that pesky field goal/PAT situation. Levengood beat out freshman Blake Lucas, but then Lucas turned around and beat out Levengood – for field goals only. Yup, Levengood was still on PAT duty but couldn’t be trusted with longer field goals. At some point this whole situation has to figure itself out. By my count, UMass now has FIVE kickers and punters on the roster. That has to be a record.