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UMass football tries to replace Coen

The 2009 version of the Massachusetts football team bears a striking resemblance to the team that took the field a year ago.

It returns 15 starters (eight on offense, six on defense, one on special teams) starting the season ranked in the Preseason Sports Network Media Poll Top 25 with returning staples on both sides of the ball in running back Tony Nelson and safety Jeromy Miles.

But for every similarity between the 2008 Minutemen and this year’s squad, there are also major differences.

The most obvious difference is the one calling all the shots. Don Brown, who coached UMass to four-straight winning seasons and an appearance in the 2006 Football Championship Subdivision National Championship game, has moved on to become the defensive coordinator at Maryland. Kevin Morris, last year’s offensive coordinator, steps in with hopes of filling Brown’s shoes.

While Morris was in charge of one of the most prolific offenses in UMass history, it may not be the same case this season. Instead of having Liam Coen, the owner of nearly every passing record in the Minutemen’s book, Morris had two quarterbacks vying to fill the large void left by Coen’s graduation.

Senior Scott Woodward, who served as Coen’s backup his entire career at UMass battled with junior college transfer Kyle Havens for the starting position under center. Havens came out on top and now has the task of trying to be Coen, something that is no easy job. But Havens will have the luxury of a number of veterans around him. With 20 seniors on the team and as many as 14 of them starters – seven on each side of the ball – UMass will have plenty of experience to help ease in Havens

On offense, the loss of Coen will be lessened by the play of Nelson, a Preseason First-Team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection and the duo of All-American Victor Cruz and All-Conference Jeremy Horne at wideout.

“Those are guys who have handled the load. They got the ball a lot last year, so they know what it is like to get the ball in clutch situations and big games, and that can definitely take some heat off the quarterback,” Morris said at the team’s Media Day in Amherst. “The quarterback can come in and get use to being the leader so it doesn’t have to be all on the quarterback.”

Despite falling out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2005 last year, the veteran experience of this year’s squad has brought UMass back into the polls. In the Preseason Sports Network Media Poll, the Minutemen came in at No. 17, 13 spots back from where they began last year.

But UMass is not alone in the polls when it comes to the CAA. Six other teams rank in the Top 25, with Richmond, the defending National Champions, coming in at No. 2. Villanova follows at No. 5 with James Madison (No. 6), New Hampshire (No. 8) and William and Mary (No. 14) all ahead of the Minutemen. Maine rounds out the CAA teams in the Top 25 at No. 19.

“The league is again going to be just a juggernaut of a league. From the top to bottom you can’t take a day off,” Morris said. “Based on record, we can play the best team in the league against the worst and that game is going down to the wire and this year is no different.”

If the rankings hold true, the Minutemen will have a tough, month-long stretch starting in the middle of October and extending to the end of the season. In the team’s sixth game of the year, UMass will play host to New Hampshire – which is the team picked to win ahead of UMass in the CAA North, followed by back-to-back games on the road against Richmond and Maine, respectively. The Minutemen lost to all three teams last season.

UMass then returns home to face Northeastern followed by defending CAA-South Champion James Madison. The Minutemen will finish the season with an away game at Hofstra.

The toughest game on the schedule for UMass came this past weekend when the team traveled to Kansas to take on Kansas State of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Following the matchup with Kansas State, the Minutemen play three straight at home against Albany, Rhode Island and lastly Stony Brook. UMass then travels to Delaware before its contest with New Hampshire.

Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at jlarnard@student.umass.edu.

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