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Kyle Havens has all eyes on him

Kyle Havens always knew he had the skills to play quarterback in college. He just had to wait a little longer to prove it.

Havens, the quarterback for Ygnacio Valley High School, had the size and ability to play at the college level. The only problem was that he never got a chance to show anyone.

“We ran the double wing-T,” Havens said of his run-heavy high school offense. “So 99 percent of the time, I was pitching the ball and acting as a lead blocker.”

Three years later, there was nothing hiding him as he took the field in Manhattan, Ka., in front of 50,750 fans starting his first game at quarterback for the Massachusetts football team.

From high school afterthought to starting a game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, Havens has come a long way. But in order to get there, someone had to find the quarterback. Luckily for Havens, UMass coach Kevin Morris was looking for one.

Replacing Liam

At the end of last season, the Minutemen were looking for a quarterback.

Liam Coen, one of the most decorated passers in the program’s history, had just graduated, leaving a gaping hole in the UMass offense. With Coen gone, the Minutemen had three talented candidates for the quarterback position with no clear-cut choice for the job.

Redshirt sophomore Octavious Hawkins had the upside. Hawkins, a highly-touted recruit from Florida had the raw talent as an athlete and passer. But so far, he had only gotten playing time at wide receiver.

Spencer Whipple, another redshirt sophomore, had the pedigree. The son of former UMass head coach Mark Whipple was a longshot but remained in the competition.

Finally, senior Scott Woodward had the experience. After spending the past four years as a backup to Coen, Woodward was now the frontrunner for the starting job but had yet to establish himself.

Only weeks after the Minutemen lost their quarterback, they lost their head coach as well. Don Brown, who had posted a 43-19 record in his five years with the Minutemen, had accepted the defensive coordinator’s job at the University of Maryland. Replacing him was former offensive coordinator Kevin Morris, who was now in search of another candidate for the starting quarterback job.

The candidate in Morris’s search not only had to show the proper physical attributes, but also academic prowess as well in order for the coach to take a longer look at a player. Even though the prospects were junior college players, Morris knew that many players have just as much, if not more, talent than those in FCS.

While in California, Morris has been recruiting in the junior college system and had found some potential suitors.

Throughout his search, Morris had come across a handful of players who had fit model of his quarterback. One that had really caught his eye, though, was a 6-foot-4 junior from Diablo Valley College: Kyle Havens.

From passed-up to prospect

After graduating high school with no major football scholarship offers, Havens turned to Diablo Valley to continue his football career.

“I always felt that I was good enough and that I could keep playing. I loved the game of football and just wanted to continue playing,” Havens said.

By getting a chance at the junior college level, Havens had set his goals high, trying to get himself into the best level of play possible. Such thinking, though, is how Havens thinks one should act when approaching the game.

“You shouldn’t play the game if you don’t aim for the best,” Havens said.

Once he got on the field for the Vikings, Havens quickly emerged as a star, averaging over 300 yards per game, making the NorCal All-Conference team and was named the 18th best junior college quarterback by Scout.com. In addition to his on-the-field accolades, Havens was also named a Gridwire Academic All-American for his work in the classroom.

Now Havens, once the unwanted quarterback, was a prized prospect. He now had the choice of several Division I schools, including Middle Tennessee State University, Towson University, Hofstra University, FBS school Marshall University and UMass.

While looking at his potential schools, Havens saw a good situation at UMass. The starting quarterback had just graduated and there was a wide-open position battle heading into the season.

“It was just a good situation here with Liam leaving,” Havens said. “It obviously opened a huge void in the offense, and it was somewhere where I thought I could come in and compete for the starting job. I wanted to come and play at the highest level of football.

“I knew that I was going to have to compete for a job. There were already a lot of good quarterbacks here already,” he added. “I thought it was somewhere I could come in, the competition would make me better as a quarterback, and I also thought I could come over and take over this offense.”

Havens visited the Amherst campus during winter break at UMass, coming from sunny California to the cold, largely empty campus. Despite the temperatures, he still received a warm welcome by the team with redshirt wideout Julian Talley hosting him and several other seniors greeting him during his visit.

Shortly after, Havens chose to transfer to UMass, a decision that turned to be a solid fit for Havens.

“I liked the college atmosphere – the town. Everything just seemed like a place that I would enjoy,” Havens said. “When I came out here in the spring, it turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be.”

More importantly, though, Havens had gone all the way from no scholarships to a Division I-AA school, no small jump for the quarterback.

“I’m where I wanted to be. UMass has met all my expectations and more … I’m playing at the highest level of football right now.”

Upon joining the team, Havens had decided to keep the same number he wore while playing at Diablo Valley: No. 12, the same number worn by Coen.

“A lot of people have been asking about that, but I don’t really think about it,” Havens said about the attention drawn by his jersey number. “Liam’s a great kid, but it’s not that big of a deal.

“It’s just a number.”

But that didn’t stop his teammates from ragging on the new transfer.

“Sometimes, some of the guys would come over and say ‘you better not wear that number if you’re not going to do what he did,’” Haven said. “But they were never serious about it.”

Although Havens wouldn’t be expected to replicate what Coen had done during his career at UMass, he would have to impress the coaching staff if he was to break the starting lineup. To do so, Haven’s had to quickly adapt to a new level of play.

“It’s faster, all-around faster,” Haven’s said about the transition to FCS. “There were definitely some guys at the junior college level who could play some big time football and were there for some reason or another. But it’s definitely faster, more complex, but it’s nothing that I didn’t think I couldn’t handle and nothing that I can’t handle.”    

“Football’s football”

It was not until the week before the Minutemen were to take the field against a member of the vaunted Big 12 conference that Morris named his starter for the season.

Speculation had been building for all of spring and fall practice. Woodward had been consistent and never disappointed. Meanwhile, Hawkins had emerged as the dark horse candidate for the spot. However, all signs pointed to Havens, who had improved dramatically in practice, growing leaps and bounds within the offense.

Earlier in camp, Havens had not yet learned to trust his teammates. Fresh from junior college, Havens was now surrounded by scholarship athletes in a strong program. But now, Havens had stopped trying to make plays alone and had learned to manage the offense.

Before the news had broken over the starter, Morris had called all of his quarterbacks into his office for individual meetings and informed them of the decision. And then, nothing.

“It was never really announced,” Havens said of Morris’ decision. “It wasn’t really a big deal. The team’s going to rally around whoever was named the starter.”

While the starting position will place the spotlight squarely on Havens from here on out, he now blends in with the rest of the team more than ever before. Long before he took the opening snap of the season, Havens had become part of the team.

So rather than revel in his new position, Havens is taking it all in stride – the new school, the new position, even the Big 12. Because on the field, there’s just the game.

“The game itself isn’t much different,” Havens says. “It’s kind of like I expected it to be. Football is football no matter where you’re playing it.”

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

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