Now that it’s the offseason, things are going to get a little slow. With that being said, we here at the Maroon Musket would like to take time to answer your questions about, well, pretty much anything. If you have anything you want us to tackle (literally, anything), shoot an e-mail to (maroonmusket at gmail dot com).
Today’s e-mail is from Jesse Allen, a reader who has been with us since pretty much day one:
1) What’s the best chance we have at having a competent/watchable offense this year?
In order for this offense to improve, Charley Molnar needs to find his starting quarterback.
Mike Wegzyn had a roller-coaster season where he started scared, got confident and then finished flat. He handed the keys to true freshman A.J. Doyle, who looked poised in the pocket but never had a chance to find his groove. While shoddy offensive line play was definitely a factor, neither quarterback looked ready to lead this team.
The offense will improve dramatically if Molnar settles on a quarterback, the offensive line holds together and UMass figures out a way to use its sudden depth at running back. I think implementing more layers to the Pistol offense should be in order. Specifically, a formation resembling the Tyrell Pryor-led Ohio State Pistol would utilize UMass’ strengths: tight end (Rob Blanchflower), running backs (Lorenzo Woodley/Stacey Bedell/Daquan Mack/Jordan Broadnax) and slot receiver (Ricardo Miller).
UMass also needs some of its younger receivers to step up quickly. Last year the Minutemen got most of their receiving output from a graduate student transfer (Deion Walker) and a senior running back convert (Alan Williams). Tajae Sharpe was the only freshman to make a real impact, and he tapered off by the end of the year. UMass needs one of the new guys to make an early push to give the receiving game some much-needed balance. While the tight end situation is pretty solid, Blanchflower (and perhaps Miller) can’t be the first and final option all season.
The offensive line also needs to hold its ground next season. UMass added a ton of size, and there will definitely be more depth than last year. Whether this unit figures “it” out before Wisconsin depends on a number of factors – including who takes over to coach the group.
2) Who will be the biggest impact player of this year’s signing class right away?
I know a lot of fans are excited about running back Lorenzo Woodley, especially after all the fanfare surrounding the final days of his recruitment. I think Woodley is going to be a key contributor for this class, but I’m not so sure he will be the biggest impact player out of the gates. With the current depth at running back, my guess is that Coach Molnar will use a number of backs early and often to: 1) change the offensive pace, 2) get everyone experience, and 3) figure out who will carry the load for years to come. While Woodley is definitely part of this equation, I’m not so sure he will get the carries to be the biggest impact player right away.
If we consider all newcomers, my guess is that Ricardo Miller, a graduate student transfer from Michigan, will turn a few heads. Miller is 6’4, 235 pounds and looks like a lean defensive end. He will probably play both tight end and slot receiver and has the physicality to out-speed and overpower some MAC-level linebackers. If the Minutemen take a page out of the Patriots’ playbook, Miller and senior Rob Blanchflower could be a dangerous tight end tandem. I have a feeling that Miller could lead this team in receiving yards next year.
If we’re only looking at freshmen, I’m torn between offensive lineman Sam Zeff and linebacker Steve Casali. I see Zeff stepping in right away to add stability to UMass’ offensive line. He is 6’5, 275+ pounds and looks like the most FBS-ready lineman of the incoming freshman class. I have spoken to a number of people involved with Northeast recruiting, and the general consensus is that UMass got an absolute steal with Zeff. Further, Zeff enrolled early and is already lifting and practicing with the team. By next season, he will have had nearly 10 months to put on size and learn the playbook.
Casali is a guy who already has the motor and strength to make an immediate impact at outside linebacker. I predict that Kassan Messiah is going to move to defensive end, and Stanley Andre is going to switch to middle linebacker, his natural position. With that maneuver, one of the outside spots is going to open, and I think Casali could compete right away. While figuring out coverages may be a struggle at first, I can see Casali raking in a lot of tackles – maybe even challenging Messiah’s impressive total from last year (65).
3) Who will be the biggest impact player of this year’s signing class over the next 4 years?
On offense, I think Woodley may turn out to be a 1,000-yard, 40-catch back by the time he’s done at UMass – maybe even by his junior year. He’s the highest-rated non-transfer running back that UMass has ever signed and definitely looks the part. He has speed, elusiveness and a sturdy frame that should keep him on the field. There is little doubt that Woodley is a stud, and if he pans out the way many think, he could go down as the next great Minuteman running back, and the first head-turner of the FBS era.
On defense, Casali is going to put up numbers, but I think safety Arthur Williams is going to be the biggest “impact” player during his career at UMass. Williams has the natural athleticism to step in and help fill the gap left by Darren Thellen right away. He has good speed (4.5 40-yard dash) and size (6’3, 185 pounds), and absolutely loves hitting. As we saw last year, MAC teams like to go over the top, and safeties tend the find themselves in a position to make plays early and often (See: Joey Colton, a walk-on freshman safety who had 49 tackles and an interception). With some time in the weight room, and room to grow, Williams could be a big-time safety in the MAC during his time in Amherst.
On special teams, preferred walk-on Logan Laurent looks like he could be a great punter. I talked to a couple of guys who follow New England recruiting, and both were pretty surprised to see Laurent leave a UNH offer on the table to head to Amherst. Laurent has a huge leg and is a pretty big kid (6’3, 210 pounds) already. With a year to sit and learn from Colter Johnson, I can see Laurent redshirting, earning a scholarship and punting for UMass for four years.
4) What did UMass do best at signing day/worst at signing day?
There is little doubt that UMass did a good job bringing in a lot of size. Seven offensive linemen signed, and most are in the 6’5, 300-pound range. After watching the Minutemen get pushed all over the field by teams like Buffalo and Central Michigan, it became increasingly clear that UMass needed a lot of depth in the trenches. The 2013 class may not be remembered for a lot of big names at flashy positions, but when 2016 rolls around, UMass may have one of the biggest teams in the MAC.
UMass also did well picking out some guys that will help out at linebacker. Shane Huber, Casali and Peter Ngobidi are quality athletes that can play right away. All three can play multiple positions, which helps when working with a roster that isn’t up to the 85 scholarship allotment. You can’t mention Huber without touching on the fact that this staff was able to convince him to re-commit after he re-opened his recruitment.
When looking at recruiting as a whole, UMass did a good job getting its name out there. All three major recruiting sites tweeted news when UMass would offer a kid, which doesn’t really happen as much when lower-level schools offer. A UMass offer also led to some credence. Some guys who were unranked and unknown picked up two or three stars after verbally committing to the Minutemen (See: Casali, Enock Asante).
On the flip side, UMass had some glaring issues on the defensive line and wasn’t able to remedy them with the 2013 class. The Minutemen picked up some quality defensive ends, but the biggest issue continues to be up the middle. Elijah Wilkinson may be able to step in and help early at defensive tackle, but he is really the only FBS-ready DT in the class. Asante could be a defensive tackle down the road, but he needs at least a full year in the weight room to get up to speed physically. There were a few guys out there that UMass was pursuing, but Molnar said he wasn’t going to lower his standards to bring those guys on campus. I’m not sure who he was referring to specifically, but I know there were a few linemen out there that got away for other reasons (Tevin Montgomery, Darius Commissiong, Rashaad Coward, etc.).
The Minutemen are already offering a ton of recruits, and have caught some flack for it. Some are saying that they are over-offering, but I’m not sure that’s a problem. Every time UMass offers, three or more people tweet about it. Then those tweets are retweeted, and so on. At the very least, UMass is getting its name out there.
Follow Bob on twitter: @BobMcGovernJr