AMHERST, Mass. - The UMass Minutemen finally got to start flying around like football players on Wednesday as they strapped up the helmets and shoulder pads for the first time this season. Thursday was another step towards their second season of FBS ball and the Minutemen are starting to feel their oats.
"It's great, it's physical, we're flying around smacking people, per usual," said senior tight end Rob Blanchflower. "Everyone's excited to get the pads on and finally start hitting people since its been almost a year since we've been going through these kinds of drills. Guys are excited, running around. It's fun."
Blanchflower is coming off a strong season for the Minutemen and is expected to be one of the players carrying the torch for this team in its second season. Head coach Charley Molnar said the Leominster, Mass. native is "unequivocally the voice of the football team" and his energy and play will largely set the tone for the rest of the team through camp and into the season.
As expected, the extra contact led to some bumps and bruises for a few of the Minutemen but for the most part the players are just happy to have the pads back on.
"We spent a long offseason in the weight room just running and mentally preparing for the season," said sophomore linebacker Kassan Messiah. "To finally put the pads on and see all your hard work paying off... it feels great."
Timing is everything in life...and football
One of the consistent talking points of Molnar's media appearances this offseason has been the continued development of sophomore quarterback Mike Wegzyn and how that has helped improve the timing and chemistry with his wide receivers. After a strong spring and continued work during the summer, Wegzyn feels like he is in a good place with his stable of throwing targets.
"We had a great spring, I think we came out of that on a high note and we've continued that here in just the last three days," Wegzyn said. "All of the receivers, running backs and offensive lineman and I have been getting our timing down and its showing out here on the field."
Blanchflower and sophomore Tajae Sharpe are Wegzyn's top-two returning targets, but only Blanchflower has caught a touchdown pass at the FBS level. Blanchflower caught 43 passes for 464 yards and two scores last year while Sharpe brings back 20 catches and 206 yards. Running back Jordan Broadnax is the only other player on the roster with double-digit receptions with 14 for 93 yards.
With so much to replace in that department, most notably Deion Walker's 59 catches, the acclimation of the younger receivers to the offense will be very important to the success of the offense.
"[Wegzyn] is not working consistently with those guys he worked with through spring ball and summer, we're mixing and matching," Molnar said. "Due to the duration of practice, the intensity of it, guys are having to take a play off and all of a sudden he's throwing a pass that if Tajae Sharpe was in there would have been money, but because you have E.J. Burston in there it's not quite as crisp and clean."
Messiah can feel the difference on the offense, though, and he likes the way things are trending.
"Everybody's bigger, faster, strong, the timing is better, the chemistry is better," Sharpe said. "We're developing our swagger. We're coming together. I think we stack up well [in the MAC] and we're going to shock a lot of people."