On Wednesday afternoon, the second edition of the Mark Whipple Era for the Massachusetts Minutemen will kick off as his charges take the field for the annual spring game at McGuirk Stadium. Gone are Charley Molnar and several coaches from the 2-22 start UMass experienced since making the jump to FBS football prior to the 2012 season and in their stead are a host of new coaches, players, and feelings which have people around the program abuzz.
There are a few burning questions facing UMass headed into this game - questions that demand some coherent answers. While it is true that the team is now one more recruiting class closer to being a 100 percent FBS program, many of the stalwarts of last season's team are gone. Their losses leave several key positions in flux and will force other players into the spotlight.
1) Who is the Quarterback?
Many teams find themselves asking this question every spring, but this may be one of the most important decisions Whipple has facing him. Mike Wegzyn is gone, leaving the competition to rising junior A.J. Doyle, graduate transfer Blake Frohnapfel, and rising sophomore Todd Stafford.
Doyle has the name on campus, playing in 19 games over the last two seasons while completing 55 percent of his passes for 1,689 yards, nine touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Those numbers don't blow anyone away and really don't mean anything with a new coach and a new offense in town. I have him as the incumbent, but really this is a wide-open competition.
Frohnapfel and Stafford don't have the reps Doyle has, but have elite size that makes them an interesting fit with a coach who previously coached Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. Frohnapfel is 6-foot-6 and 225 lbs. while Stafford comes in at 6-foot-7 and 250 lbs. Impressive specimens without a ton of tape to see how they will respond to major playing time.
It will be interesting to see who plays with whom and while taking spring game stats seriously is a dangerous game, it should give us some insight into who could be the starter come preseason camp in August.
2) What will Mark Whipple's Offense/Defense look like?
Last year UMass lacked a certain something on offense. Something all good offenses traffic in. What's the word....OH! Right; consistency! Without a consistent quarterback, running back, or receiving corps, just about the only thing worth mentioning about Charley Molnar's offense was the offensive line...and that really wasn't his area of expertise anyway.
Stacey Bedell is gone, but the running back depth chart is one jammed with talent. Jamal Wilson, Lorenzo Woodley, Jordan Broadnax, and Shadrach Abrokwah all had at least one game where they looked like a top back and top recruit J.T. Blyden adds another element to the depth chart. Whipple is an NFL guy, so hopefully he can figure out a way to deploy all of this talent in a way that takes some pressure off the quarterback.
Out wide, Tajae Sharpe is back after having a quietly solid season a year ago. Shakur Nesmith is healthy and while there isn't much left at tight end with Rob Blanchflower and Derek Beck now gone, whoever goes under center should find some targets across the middle in slot guys like Elgin Long, D.J. Woods, and Dalvin Battle.
Defensively, it looks as though they will be going to a 3-4 scheme that will feature linebackers like Kassan Messiah prominently. WIth so much talent gone from the defensive line and secondary, the experience of players like Messiah and Stanley Andre in the middle will be crucial.
3) Who will kick the ball?
I would call Blake Lucas' performance on place kicks last year a dumpster fire, but it seems appropriate. Lucas was 3-for-10 on field goals, including 1-for-3 from 20-29 yards. He was put in some unfairly long field goal situations last year, but he certainly didn't seize the day. Brendon Levengood, by contrast, was perfect as soon as he took over the kicking duties late in the year, making all nine of his attempts with six of them coming between 40-49 yards.
Levengood also handled the kickoff duties and did a fine job at it. But he is now gone and Lucas will be the leader in the clubhouse to take the job. Markus Colin will be in competition for both the kickoff and place kicking responsibilities.
Also gone is punter Colter Johnson who, despite coming into the season with high expectations, had a down year punting in 2013. Rising sophomore Logan Laurent is the only punter listed on the spring roster, making him the obvious favorite.