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Havens works to replace Coen, aided by returning seniors

nelson_08_um_ftbll_hlycrss_216Coach Don Brown is now the defensive coordinator at Maryland; ex-quarterback Liam Coen is playing Arena Football and last year’s Sean Smalls-Courtney Robinson cornerback tandem has graduated. Most of the Massachusetts football teams’ familiar faces of the past few years have gone on to greener pastures (turf, in Coen’s case).

So it falls on coach Kevin Morris in his first year at the helm for the No. 15 Minutemen to right the ship after what many saw as an underachieving 2008 season. At the same time, the team is looking to a new starting quarterback, a young linebacking corps and a retooled secondary to improve over the season.

The key components in the new-look Minutemen will be two All-Americans, offensive tackle Vladimir Ducasse and safety Jeromy Miles, and Walter Payton Award candidate Tony Nelson at tailback.

Quarterbacks

After a prolonged position battle, junior Kyle Havens was named starting quarterback for the Minutemen one week before the season opener against Kansas State.

Havens, a junior college transfer from Diablo Valley College, averaged 300 yards per game last season with the Vikings. After impressing the coaching staff during spring and fall practices, Havens earned the starting nod from Morris, beating out senior Scott Woodward for the job. Sporting Coen’s old number 12, Havens will have a strong receiving corps to assist him in his transition to Colonial Athletic Conference play.

Woodward, a lefty who has spent most of his career backing up Coen, had been expected to step into the starting role entering his final season before Havens’ transfer. With 30 game appearances under his belt, he was the only quarterback on the roster to throw a pass for UMass before the season started. For his career, Woodward is 26-for-50 for 291 yards and two interceptions.

Further down the depth chart are sophomores Octavious Hawkins and Spencer Whipple. Both have shown promise in their young careers and were factored into the quarterback competition until late. Although he’s a quarterback first, Hawkins has played some snaps at wide receiver in order to get some playing time. Whipple is the son of former UMass coach, Mark Whipple.

Halfbacks

Replacing Coen as the centerpiece of the UMass offense will be 2008 All-Conference running back Tony Nelson. Entering his senior season, Nelson is the newest in a long line of feature backs at UMass. Last year, he led the Minutemen in rushing with 1,325 yards on 243 carries (5.5 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns.

Nelson will be looked upon as the workhorse for the Minutemen offense whenever the passing game struggles, which is likely, regardless of who takes snaps this season.

Backing him up will be redshirt sophomore Jonathan Hernandez, who played a significant factor last season on special teams but received six carries last season. After opening eyes during spring practice, redshirt freshman Cedric Gonnet could get some touches. Finally, Amherst native Alphonsus Aguh adds depth to the tailback spot after getting his first game action last season.

Fullbacks

When senior Chris Zardas is a healthy back who can block, run and catch the ball out of the backfield, his productivity is great. But with injuries plaguing him for most of his career, his adeptness as a player has been limited so far with 26 rushes. However, his versatility in playing both fullback and halfback could allow him to see more touches out of the backfield in his final season.

Tight Ends

Senior Matt Silver leads a versatile group of tight ends and heads into the season as the team’s top tight end after backing up Ian Jorgenson last season. He caught five passes for 122 yards, including an 80-yard reception against Bryant. Silver is an excellent receiver from the tight end spot and looks to improve on his blocking.

Backing him up will be redshirt junior Andrew Krevis, who caught four passes last season for the Minutemen. After starting his UMass career as a defensive lineman on the scout team, Krevis looks to see playing time when the team goes to duel tight end sets and continue to develop at the position.

Redshirt sophomore Emil Igwenagu is listed as a tight end but has seen time at fullback after moving from linebacker before his second year. While his position has been in flux, Igwenagu remains a solid contributor on special teams.

Wide Receivers

Last season, former coach Don Brown promised that his no-name group of wide receivers would become household names by season’s end. And now, after blossoming throughout Coen’s final season at UMass, the wide receiver corps looks to help anchor an offense that’s still looking for a quarterback.

Senior Victor Cruz enters the 2009 season as a preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association selection after logging 71 receptions for 1,064 yards and six scores in his breakout season last year. Cruz, who brings both speed and solid hands to the table, is expected to return most of the kicks and punts for the Minutemen after fielding six punts and three kickoffs last season.

Manning the other receiver spot is 2008 third-team All-CAA pick Jeremy Horne, who was no slouch himself last season. Horne caught 50 balls for 895 yards and eight touchdowns. After transferring from Syracuse, Horne has developed into a major weapon in UMass’ offense.

Also expected to make an impact as a wide receiver are senior Joe Sanford and redshirt sophomore Julian Talley. After spending time at quarterback and on special teams, Sanford developed into a solid possession receiver last season with 20 catches for 199 yards. Talley, meanwhile, caught the fifth most passes on the team last season and is expected to develop into a major component of the offense.

Other prospects at the wide receiver spot include speedster redshirt junior Torrey Esalomi and redshirt junior Aaron Fears, fresh off a solid spring season.

Ducasse_08_um_ftbll_hlycrss_258Offensive Line

The first year starting for any quarterback is tough, but having an All-American left tackle in Vladimir Ducasse protecting the blind side tends to ease things. Ducasse, a co-captain for the Minutemen, is expected to be a 6-foot-5 330 pound anchor of the offensive line.

Helping him shore up the left side of the line will be redshirt sophomore Josh Samuda, who returns as a starter at left guard after playing as a freshman.

Redshirt junior John Inhe, who got significant playing time last year, is expected to handle most of the plays at center. But redshirt freshman Quinton Sales could play a factor after a solid offseason.

Getting the start at right tackle in the opener was redshirt sophomore Brian Ostaszewski. After starting three games last season (two at right tackle one at right guard) Ostaszewski earned the nod at the right tackle spot vacated by Ducasse’s move to left tackle but could also play a factor at guard if injuries dictate. Also in the mix at guard is redshirt junior Brandon Flanagan.

Rob Getek, a transfer from Connecticut as well as a tight end, started seven games last season and looks to remain in the mix at tackle. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Stephane Milhim will add depth and competition at the spot.

Defensive Line

The Minutemen return three starters up front in seniors Kyle Harrington, Michael Hanson and redshirt junior Bob McLaughlin. Harrington, a preseason All-CAA second-team selection, will be charged with the task of clogging up the middle at nose tackle for the Minutemen. He finished last season with the fifth most tackles on the team (56) with 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss.

Alongside him at the three-technique will be Collier, who enters his fourth season as a starter after serving as a team captain last year. Collier saw a dip in production last season but looks to return to the form that got him 63 tackles and third-team All-CAA honors as a sophomore.

Like Collier, Hanson looks to rebound from a junior season that saw his production limited by injuries. Hanson, who racked up 61 tackles (7.0 sacks, 16.0 tackles for loss) as a sophomore is looking healthy after a solid spring entering his final year.

McLaughlin mans the other defensive end sport after a breakout 2008 season. He looks to maintain a bigger role on the defensive line from the end spot. Senior Anthony Monette, a converted linebacker, could see some time at the defensive end spot, particularly in short-yardage situations.

Linebackers

jennings_08_um_ftbll_hlycrss_054When healthy, Josh Jennings is the team’s best linebacker. Unfortunately for the Minutemen, the senior’s back issues have made it questionable whether or not he will take the field at all this season.

Looking to pick up the slack with their defensive star’s status uncertain is senior Kurt Filler and youngsters sophomore Tyler Holmes and redshirt freshman D.J. Adeoba.

Filler, a junior college transfer, heads into the season as the top strong side linebacker. He also brings a strong pass rush and ability to play all three linebacker positions. Holmes, meanwhile, will have the nod at middle linebacker after playing in six games as a true freshman.

Getting his first ever start at weak side linebacker in the Kansas State game, Adeoba burst on the scene, earning offensive rookie of the week honors after returning a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Wildcats.

Adding depth to the linebacker position are senior Eric Dickson, who may spend time at the linebacker or defensive back and redshirt junior Scott Duggan.

Cornerbacks

With the graduation of last season’s lauded cornerback tandem, the Minutemen have a huge gap to fill in their secondary and have a crowded field of suitors.

Heading into the season, senior Corey Davis, who started four games last season, was seen as a leader in a depleted defensive backfield. After being limited to nickel and dime packages for the past few years, Davis looks to move into one of the outside corner positions.

Also looking to break into the cornerback conversation are three former wide receivers in redshirt juniors Ke’Mon Bailey, David Cozzo and Warren Wilson, all of whom were moved to the position after last season.

Bailey has shown major improvement since moving to the other side of the ball, leading him to receive the starting nod in the season opener. Wilson, a Boston College transfer, enters his second year at UMass and, at 6-foot-1 has great size and speed for the position.

Cozzo, a transfer from the University of South Florida, joined the Minutemen after his freshman season and is now looking to break into the rotation at corner.

Safeties

While the position battle for corner rages, there is little controversy over who will be taking the two starting safety spots.

First, at free safety is Jeromy Miles. As one of the team’s co-captains and a preseason second-team All-American, Miles is the best player on the UMass defense.

After playing his freshman year at Navy, Miles has started all 25 games he has been in since joining the team. And that time has hardly gone to waste, as he racked up a team-high 104 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions last season for the Minutemen.

Starting alongside Miles will be redshirt junior Shane Viveiros. A former walk-on, Viveiros broke into the lineup last season and played in all 12 games, starting two.

Also in the picture at the safety spot is redshirt freshman Kumar Davis. After having an exceptional year on the scout team last year while redshirted, Davis is expected to see time at the rover position and in certain situations.

Special Teams

On the special teams’ front, the Minutemen retain senior Armando Cuko to handle the place-kicking duties while redshirt sophomore Travis Tripucka, a defenseman on the UMass lacrosse team, will handle the long snapping duties.

However, after losing Associated Press FCS first-team punter Brett Arnold, the Minutemen are in search of a player to handle punting duties. Woodward has done some punting on the side while in a backup quarterback role, but Morris has dismissed him as a permanent solution.

So, the battle goes down to freshman Jeff Strait, the frontrunner, or Virginia Tech transfer Caleb Violette. While Violette has a good chance to get the kickoff job, Strait remains the first choice at punter.

Nick O’Malley can be reached at nomalley@student.umass.edu.

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