Ah, it's the most wonderful time of the year again. The trees are turning green, flowers are blooming, Claritin is flying off the shelves as people can no longer breathe due to the obscene amount of pollen in the air. It can only mean one thing: the Massachusetts Minutemen spring game is here.
If you're just jumping on the Minutemen bandwagon now, you've chose a great time to do it. Coming off two seasons of horrible football, Minutemen took great strides towards mediocrity last season. Now some would laugh at the Minutemen's three win season, but those in the know realize three wins is more than the previous two seasons combined. With a lot of returning talent, Minutemen are actually poised to make a bowl game for the first time, well, ever. We'll break down the roster another time, though. Today is all about the spring game.
So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye
UMass bid farewell to some key contributors on both sides. While I won't break down every player that left, here's some faces that you won't see on the field come Friday. Jean Sifrin, tight end and human highlight reel, decided to enter the draft rather than be try to break Alan Moores record for oldest college player. This will be sorely missed. Stanley Andre, who recorded over 100 tackles at linebacker and was ranked 11th in the nation, graduated. He will be sorely missed. Jon Denton, one of UMass's key blocking tight ends and straight off a 12 game season, was removed from the roster. Jordan Broadnax transferred out of UMass, after injuries and an overcrowded depth chart pushed him out of the spotlight. He won't be missed that much. There were also other graduations, transfers, and removals, but for our purposes, none had a big impact.
Handle With Care
Before we get into what to watch for this spring game, let's finish up with things you won't see. UMass will have seven player coaches during the game;* Blake Frohnapfel, Trey Dudley-Giles, Randall Jette, Rodney Mills, Jovan Santos-Knox, Tajae Sharpe, Jamal Wilson. They won't see the field, and for good reason. Blake Frohnapfel** is coming off an injury, and his absence in the final games of last season was the equivalent of a PTSD flashback of Charlie Molnar's offense. If possible, Mark Whipple should encase Frohnapfel in bubble wrap just to be safe. Trey Dudley-Giles and Randall Jette might be the two most important defensive backs on the Minutemen's roster, and Dudley-Giles dealt with injuries all last season. Likewise, Javon Santon-Knox might be the most important linebacker, and was a first team All-MAC linebacker last season. With the departure of Sifrin and Denton, Mills is the head of a very thin tight end class. Tajae Sharpe puts up video game numbers. Enough Said.*** Finally Jamal Wilson is another player coming off injury, otherwise I don't really have an explanation for why he's here. These seven players are key to the Minutemen's success this year, so you won't be seeing them until it counts.
A Who's Who of Who's Left
Last season, headed into the spring game, it was a question of what does this roster have. No roster spot was safe, and players were battling for their football lives. As you can see from the list above, UMass is in a position it hasn't been in since they joined the MAC. The Minutemen know who their starting quarterback is. They know their key players on defense. They know the offense will be able to operate successfully. If I told you that UMass would be 11th in the nation in passing yards before last season, you wouldn't believe me. If I told you UMass would be in the top 10 in passing yards this season, you're now wondering why UMass had to throw so much when they should be leading games. This change means instead of looking for players who will anchor the offense and defense in the spring game, we're now looking at both players who will fill roles, and players who might make an impact down the line. It's a nice place to be, and it speaks to the turn around that UMass experienced last year.
Quarterback: We're looking for the successor to Blake Frohnapfel's throne, and the backup plan if he gets injured again.**** The current candidates trying out for the spot during the spring game are Russ Comis, Andrew Verboys, Austin Whipple and AJ Doyle. Comis and Verboys are both redshirt freshman come the fall, and based on recruiting pedigree will be the most interesting to watch. With Whipple under center, UMass struggled mightily on offense at the tail end of last season, don't expect much from him. AJ Doyle still exists, and probably won't see playing time after Friday. This is for the best.
Running Back: Shadrach Abrokwah is the head of the class, coming off a season where he led the Minutemen in rushing. Fighting for a spot in the two deep will be Lorenzo Woodley and J.T. Blyden. Both were once the tops of UMass's recruiting class. When watching these guys run, it's not a question of who will take the top spot, but can the Minutemen open up holes and succeed running the ball. The Minutemen were 115th in the nation in rushing last year, and I'm sure Mark Whipple will want to lean heavier on the running game this year to protect Blake Frohnapfel. In the same vein, look to see who's best at picking up pass protections.
Wide Receiver: Look to see if anyone can create separation and become an impact receiving option. Last season, Tajae Sharpe had more yards than every other wide receiver on the Minutemen roster combined. With Jean Sifrin gone, Umass needs a second receiving option. If no Minuteman can create space when the top two cornerbacks are out, then it'll be a long season of double teams for Sharpe. Bank on Shekur Nesmith and Jalen Williams to step up.
Tight End: Can anyone fill the void left by Jean Sifrin. With Mills out, there's some interesting names on the list that will have their shot. Shaquille Harris and Todd Stafford switched into the position. The latter was recruited as a six foot seven inch quarterback, and we know that Blake Frohnapfel loves height in the red zone. The further missed last season due to injury. Brandon Howard will probably take the mantle as blocking tight end.
Defense: With Dudley-Giles and Jette sitting out, the Minutemen will see how the back end of the two deep will fill out for the secondary. Meanwhile, on the front seven, the loss of Daniel Maynes and Stanley Andre will leave the Minutemen looking for senior leadership and run stoppers. Don't expect the defense to move at full speed, this is a spring game after all.
The Massachusetts Minutemen have their first shot at a bowl game since joining the MAC. It's also their last year in the MAC, which will leave them without a conference going into 2016. This season has an added bit of importance and pressure, as this is the beginning of many auditions for other conferences to come take us in. Fortunately, UMass had the core pieces in place to make that run, but Friday's game will show us who else will be along for the ride.*****
*Per Dan Malone, who you should absolutely follow on twitter at @Daniel_Malone.
**I will provide one Honey Bar-B-Que boneless wing to any fan that finds me pre-game wearing an Unhappy Apple costume. I've seen banana costumes at basketball games. We can make this happen.
***Okay, one more thing. Remember that this season, every time Tajae Sharpe catches a ball, you have to cheer HIP HIP TAJAE. If we start doing these things, we can go from worst fans in the MAC to best fans. That would be kind of cool in my book.
****Knock on wood. Actually, drive to California and knock on Hyperion. Just to be safe
*****Special Thanks to Dan Malone, Bob McGovern, and the team at maroonmusket.com.