2013 was a dark time for the Massachusetts Minutemen.
For the second straight season, the Minutemen registered just one win, this time against Miami (last time against Akron). Just about everything that could go wrong for the Minutemen did, from the worst quarterback play in the MAC, to a seemingly endless list of injured players, to questionable practices at practice (no pun intended). Former players, alumni, and the administration grew tired of not only losing, but the way the coaching staff handled themselves. As a result, after two seasons at the helm the Minutemen, Charlie Molnar was fired from his position as head coach.
Now the Minutemen enter 2014 with a new look that is all too familiar. The number of games at Gillette Stadium has been halved to three, with the other three games being played at McGuirk Stadium, in Amherst. Heading the team is Mark Whipple, a former UMass coach who once took a sub-.500 UMass team and turned it into a FCS champion. Behind Whipple are two more faces that many fans will recognize; former UMass quarterback Liam Coen takes over at quarterbacks coach, and former UMass running back Marcel Shipp takes over as running backs coach. The question remains, though: how much rope with the fans give these UMass legends if the wins don't come.
Mark Whipple's first change to the offense was bringing back the pro-style offense Minutemen fans were used to. Gone is Charley Molnar's up-tempo spread offense, which was neither up-tempo nor moved the ball downfield. Also gone is one of the two quarterbacks who was under center last year, as Mike Wegzyn transferred out. The other half of last year's tandem, A.J. Doyle, is most likely sitting this year in favor of a transfer, Blake Frohnapfel (which does not translate to unhappy apple). This will likely be a coup for UMass, which had the worst adjusted yards per attempt of any team in the MAC. Frohnapfel saw very limited play for Marshall, but was very efficient during that time. He also has two years of eligibility remaining.
Lining up behind Blake Frohnapfel will be a deep running back corps led by Drew Harris and Lorenzo Woodley. Harris was the second big Whipple addition this year, a former four star back who just finished a year of junior college. If he can adjust to FBS game speed, Harris can be a real threat. The second half of the tandem is Woodley, who headlined a recruiting class two years ago which was fourth best in the MAC. Woodley battled through injuries last year, but when healthy showed flashes of FBS talent. Running back is the biggest strength for the Minutemen, as behind the two headliners are four more usable pieces in Shadrach Abrokwah, Jordan Broadnax, Jamal Wilson and J.T. Blyden (who is a redshirt candidate).
Protecting Frohnapfel and the plethora of running backs is an offensive line that lacks experience but makes up for in size. The current expected starters, per beat writer Dan Malone, are Tyrell Smith (LT), Liam Porter (RG), Matt Sparks (C), Ryan Johnson (RG) and Tyshon Henderson (RT). With three new starters on the line, it'll be interesting to see if the line can give Frohnapfel enough time to find his receivers.
Speaking of, the prior season UMass relied on one receiver last year, Tajae Sharpe. Sharpe was responsible for 55 percent of all catches on the Minutemen in 2013, but with some new faces on the team this year, hopefully the ball will be spread around more. Alex Kenney, a transfer from Penn State, is a speedster who should be able to spread the field. Returning to the team is Shakur Nesmith, who looks to bounce back from a freshman year mostly missed due to injury. Juniors Jalen Williams and Marken Michael round out the receiving core. Meanwhile, juniors Jon Denton and Jean Sifrin are trying to replace UMass legend Rob Blanchflower. Each are transfers and will compete for playing time.
One of the biggest issues with the defense last year was depth. The team seemed to lose its legs as the game wore on. This year, Whipple finds himself with the deepest UMass defense since joining the MAC. Thanks to the new depth at linebacker, Whipple is implementing the 3-4, which makes great use of the strength at linebacker and hides the weakness at tackle. Depth does not mean experience though, as the defense starts just two seniors.
The line is one of the places to find a senior in tackle Daniel Maynes. Maynes doesn't have FBS size, but he does have FBS experience. On either side of Maynes are sophomores Peter Angeh and Enock Asante. Also in the rotation is Sha-Ki Holines, who some might remember as an UMass recruit who switched to UConn, then transferred back to UMass.
Behind the line will be a linebacker core that runs deep. The core is lead by senior Stanley Andre, who recorded 100 tackles last season and is a threat to repeat that performance this year. Paired up with Andre at inside linebacker is junior Jovan Santos-Knox. On the outside, expect a rotation of Kassan Messiah, Trey Seals, Steve Casali and Shane Huber. Huber was highly regarded out of high school but had his freshman season derailed by injuries. Expect to hear his name called if he can come back healthy.
In the secondary, juniors fill the ranks. Randall Jette and Trey Dudley-Giles take the corners, while D'Metrius Williams and Joe Colton take safety. This group is one of the more experienced secondaries in the MAC, as well as one of the most experienced squads on the Minutemen.
Blake Lucas is set to kick again for UMass, after being benched last season for missing seven field goals in ten attempts. Expect him to have a very short leash. Transfer Brian McDonald will take punting duties for the Minutemen. On the return side, Trey Dudley-Giles will be returning (pun not intended), with speedster Alex Kenney right behind him.
|vs. Boston College
|at Penn State
|vs. Bowling Green
|at Kent State
|vs. Eastern Michigan
|vs. Ball State
UMass was picked to finish last in the MAC by just about every writer for the third straight season. Little do they remember that the Minutemen have yet to finish in last (Akron two years ago, Miami last season). This is a team that was once starting freshman that most teams would be benching, but now those freshman have grown into juniors with a chip on their shoulder. The depth which was once FCS quality is now FBS recruits that can contribute as role players.
Looking at the schedule, there are certainly wins to be had. Colorado lost a good deal of its senior talent, and is ripe for an upset. Otherwise, UMass would be hard pressed to find wins, but three match-ups stand out: Miami, Eastern Michigan University, and Akron. On the road at Miami will be a tough matchup, but Miami hasn't become significantly better since last year. EMU had just two wins last season, while giving up almost 400 points. They have a defense that could make even last year's UMass offense look good.
Finally, and surely most controversially, is Akron. While most would scoff at the idea that UMass would even have a chance against Akron, who won five games last year and seems to be trending up, let alone win at Akron, I see a team that outperformed its metrics last year. Kyle Pohl was the 10th best quarterback in the MAC, the running game was in the bottom half of the MAC, and the defense was merely average. If UMass can pull itself together and provide an average offense, expect this game to be much closer that one would expect.
Of course, all of this depends on UMass pulling itself together. Last year the offense was by far the worst in the MAC, and the solution to most the problems now falls on Blake Frohnapfel. If Frohnapfel could be just an average MAC quarterback, UMass has a chance to compete. If Frohnapfel is Wegzyn or Doyle 2.0, UMass will see too many possessions end in three and outs, the defense will be run tired from being on the field too much, and wins will be hard to find. For Mark Whipple to be successful this season, I think two wins isn't too much to ask. Football Outsiders has the Minutemen as 87% to tie or exceed last year's win total (one) and 52 percent to have two wins or more. The thing to remember though, is there are only three senior starters on the Minutemen. This is all a warm up for next year's farewell tour of the MAC.
A Special Thanks to Daniel Malone for use of his preseason depth charts and Football Outsiders for use of their Football Almanac, which you should go buy now.