Daniel Malone is a UMass beat writer for MassLive.com and the Republican. He's currently at Amherst covering the Minutemen's summer camp. I had a chance to catch up with him and ask him five questions about the upcoming season.
Hustle Belt: How has the demeanor of the team changed from the end of last season to the beginning of this season?
Daniel Malone: This is a question we've asked a number of players since the spring and the general consensus seems to be that players feel more relaxed, more focused and generally happier. Depending on which players you ask, you might get a more - ahem - colorful answer. And that's pretty much what we've seen watching the team work since March. There's a general air of looseness that's been missing in recent seasons, so you know the team is getting comfortable with the new coaching staff.
The fact that there's loud music playing throughout practice to keep things fresh speaks to that. But there's also a feeling of "OK, it's time to work now." Coach Mark Whipple has touched on need to not look back on past frustrations, and I genuinely believe the team is following his lead.
HB: The question on every Minutemen fan's mind right now is who's starting under center. How do the candidates look so far and who has the early lead?
DM: Let me start by saying that, unlike the last two seasons, media members have not been allowed to observe training camp practices (outside of the camp opener Monday). So, it's kind of difficult to say who looks like what. Of what little we did see on day one, A.J. Doyle was clearly the best quarterback on the field. He looked confident made rattled off a number of crisp, clean throws, including a couple of nice bombs to Tajae Sharpe. Does that mean Doyle be out there starting come Aug. 30? No, probably not. It's hard to imagine Whipple bringing in his own guy in Blake Frohnapfel just to have him sit on the bench. For that reason, you'd have to say the former Marshall passer has the advantage right now.
But that's not to say he isn't doing it on merit, either. From what Whipple's told us, both guys have played well - I thought his son Austin, another transfer from Penn State, looked pretty good, too - and made strong throws. In the opening practice, Frohnapfel looked rusty early on, but by the end of the day he was slinging it around pretty well during 11-on-11 work. Whipple has said he's expecting to name a starter by the second week of camp, and at this point, I think we're still all expect Frohnapfel to be the guy.
HB: How is the team reacting to the change in styles, the spread to pro-style and the 4-3 to the 3-4?
DM: They're certainly coming along better now than they were in the spring. It's pretty clear that a summer's worth of film and playbook study has done the team good. Plus, it helped that the NCAA loosened its grip on offseason contact and allowed coaches up to two hours a week to instruct players in the classroom. So far, the defensive players I've spoken to seem most excited about the team's scheme changes. Talking to guys like Stanley Andre, Kassan Messiah and Trey Dudley-Giles, the new 3-4 look doesn't sound like it's too, too different from what we saw from the team early last season, but the players like that it's more complex and difficult to predict.
Defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo said it protects his guys a little more by moving them around and keeping opponents from keying in on any one player too consistently. I think on offense, Whipple's pro-style playbook has taken some getting used to, especially for the quarterbacks. Both Doyle and Frohnapfel have said they're still getting used to be under center and making 5- and 7-step drops. But I think, when up and running, it'll do a better job of utilizing the team's talent than Charley Molnar's system did.
HB: Has anyone's name come up unexpectedly, for better or for worse?
DM: Again, I wish I could have more of an answer for you after watching the guys play with my own eyes. One thing that stood out to me on the first day was Zeke Edmonds - a freshman and formerly a linebacker - lining up with the first-team defense at safety next to Joe Colton. With Devin Brown graduated, that's a position of need for the team and it'll be interesting to see if Edmonds sticks.
I guess for worse, we were surprised to learn that Daniel Maynes - one of the team's few seniors and the expected starter at nose tackle - has been nursing another injury and has missed some time. In his place, big Robert Kitching has handled nose tackle duties. I'm hoping to crack the media ban soon and check out some more of the guys.
HB: What's your prediction for the end of season record?
DM: Considering this team could have probably won three or even four games last year when everything went so poorly, I don't think anyone would be surprised to see UMass make a sizable leap in 2014. I don't think I'm ready to put a hard number on it yet, but I'll just say that I'd be very, very surprised if this team finishes with just one win again this season.
To read more Daniel Malone, you can follow the Top 25 players to watch this season for the Minutemen countdown.