The cancellation of the Northeastern and Hofstra football programs after over 70 years of tradition left a slew of talented and experienced college players suddenly looking for a place to play.
The Massachusetts football team welcomed five of those players to bolster a squad that has gotten very young in the offseason.
Losing 15 starters to graduation, UMass coach Kevin Morris recruited veteran players to provide guidance to his team.
“Part of our recruiting process was that we have a small senior class, and we are a young team. So those are the guys we targeted in our recruiting process,” Morris said. “[We tried] to bring in some older guys who had some senior leadership qualities who could help our team in a hurry.”
Amongst them are former Huskies and College Athletic Association Preseason All-Conference tailback John Griffin, senior lineman Greg Niland and sophomore linebacker Chad Hunte.
Former Pride wide receiver Anthony Nelson joins a depleted receiving unit that lost four players who accounted for 75 percent of UMass receptions and 61 percent of its receiving yards.
Along with Nelson comes redshirt freshman lineman Anthony Dima to round out a group of talented transfer students brought in by an advantageous recruiting team led by recruiting coordinator Guido Falbo.
Transfer students have been a valuable asset for Morris, now in his second year as head coach of the Minutemen. Senior Kyle Havens transferred last year from Diablo Valley Junior College and assumed the starting role under center.
Havens looks to build on his experience as last season’s starting quarterback, but does not have the luxury of throwing to a familiar receiving core. One starting receiver returns this season, with Jonathan Hernandez as the lone returning option out of the backfield.
“We lost a lot of guys, but we also have a lot of guys who will step up,” Havens said. “Nelson is going to be amazing at the X [positon] for us. He reminds me of [Victor Cruz], quick and shifty. Julian Talley was making big plays for us last year, and I can give it to any one of our backs and they can take it 80 yards downfield.”
Overall, UMass returns nine starters from last season, including four on offense and defense and one on special teams. In the locker room, the Minutemen will be led by junior captains Tyler Holmes and Emil Igwenagu.
Holmes is the most decorated player from this summer, earning five different preseason honors including Sports Network Second Team All-American and Phil Steele Preseason Third Team. He leads a defense which finished seventh in the Colonial Athletic Association in points allowed.
Running duties are projected to alternate between Griffin and Hernandez during the opening game. .Hernandez showed plenty of promise last season starting in place of an injured Tony Nelson.
They lead a backfield that is young and inexperienced. Other than the two starters, no one has seen a single carry in a college game.
Red-shirt sophomore tailback Alan Williams is the only other back returning from last year’s roster, while Mike Delaney from Foxborough, Mass., and Jamar Smith from Binghamton, N.Y., can step in as freshmen.
Havens returns to the Minuteman huddle as the incumbent starter, unlike last season when he was vying for a starting role amidst a four-player quarterback competition. The second-year starter has had a year to acclimate to Morris’s system and adjust to the game-speed of Division 1-AA and looks to play more consistently this season.
Havens showed flashes of greatness in his junior year, most notably against Rhode Island in Week 3 when he threw for 329 yards on 22-of-30 passing with two touchdowns and was awarded CAA Offensive Player of the Week honors. Havens, however, also saw his production dip during the second half of the season.
He finished with an efficiency rating of 115.9, throwing for 1,908 yards and nine touchdowns over 10 games, while completing 55 percent of his passes.
Ian Shultis from Thousand Oaks, Calif., appears to be the clear backup. Like Havens, he is a junior college transfer student. In his freshman season at Moorpark College, he completed 212 passes for 2,285 yards and 22 touchdowns, earning All-Conference honors in the Southern California Football Association.
Behind them are freshmen Brandon Hill and redshirt freshman Jesse Hunt who will need to prove themselves.
Morris expressed that he would be open to running a duel-quarterback system, but does not prefer it and that it likely won’t happen.
The Minutemen finished the 2009 season ranked first in the CAA in sacks allowed (17, 130 yards), due primarily to their play up front.
Aside from the loss of All-American guard Vladimir Ducasse, who the New York Jets selected in the second round of the National Football League draft, their offensive line remains largely intact.
Third-year starter Josh Samuda is a Phil Steele Preseason Second-Team All-CAA lineman, leading the front-five from the left guard position. He blocks alongside of redshirt senior John Ihne, a versatile center and guard, and Brian Ostaszewski, a fourth-year starter at right tackle.
Stephane Milhilm is the Minutemen’s third returning starter up front and the addition of Niland, who helped block for Griffin en route to a 1,000 yard season as a Huskie last season for just the fifth time in school history, bolsters an already sizable set of starters.
With a starting unit projected to be an average of six feet, five inches and over 300 pounds, UMass will face few teams that can match its offensive line in size.
Former Minutemen standout wide receivers Victor Cruz and Jeremy Horne graduated in 2009 and are currently fighting for their places on NFL rosters. They took with them a combined 82 catches and 1,170 yards receiving, leaving a group of new players that Havens will have to get used to throwing to.
Overall, Morris will need to find replacements for their No. 1 and No. 3 wide receivers in a passing offense that accounted for over 2,500 yards in the air.
Talley returns to the lineup for his second season as a starter and is likely to be Haven’s number one target. The redshirt junior finished second in 2009 in catches (28) and receiving yards (350).
Nelson joins him in the flats after catching 40 passes for 520 yards and four touchdowns last season with Northeastern.
Redshirt freshman tight end Rob Blanchflower has shown promise during training camp and junior tight end Andrew Krevis will see an increased role after playing in all 11 games last season as a back-up.
Defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski and defensive line coach Steve Tirrell have some holes to fill up front with the departure of the entire UMass starting line.
Brandon Collier, Michael Hanson, Kyle Harrington, and Anthony Minette accounted for 149 tackles and seven and a half sacks and have all graduated.
Aside from redshirt sophomore Charles Thompson, who played in nine games and registered 14 tackles, the Minutemen lack any kind of experience in the trenches.
Redshirt senior Brandon Flanagan sat out the 2008 season after transferring from Buffalo. He played in two games as an offensive lineman and now competes for a position on the other side of the ball with eight freshmen.
Holmes enters the season as the face of the linebacker core, touting more preseason accolades than any player on the team. The captain’s play during the 2009 season certainly warranted attention, as he finished second in the CAA in tackles with 101 (11.2 per game) and fourth in interceptions per game.
Perry Mcintyre returns as a sophomore after registering 64 tackles in his first year, good for third on the team.
Mike Mele, Scott Duggan and Chris Chamberlain will all see increased roles this year after limited play last season.
The UMass defense ranked second-to-last in the CAA in turnover margin and ninth overall in the conference in pass defense (198.2 yards allowed per game).
The Minutemen moved redshirt senior Ke’Mon Bailey to cornerback last season from wide receiver and now rely on him to anchor a secondary that lost its leader, Jeromy Miles. Bailey played in all 11 games last season and finished with 38 tackles, including four and a half for a loss.
Redshirt sophomores Darren Thellen and Kumar Davis return to the secondary. The two combined for 65 tackles and three interceptions.
Redshirt junior Shane Viveros starts at strong safety as the Minutemen are more experienced in the secondary than last year.
In the battle for field position, the Minutemen will have a reliable asset in Caleb Violette as punter. As a redshirt freshman, he ranked in the top two in the CAA in punting average for the first eight weeks of the season and finished in fourth place (39 yards per punt).
Violette competes for place-kicking duties as well after UMass lost its starting place kicker in Armando Cuko from last season. He attempted two field goals (1-of-2) and made both of his two extra points in 2009.
Freshmen Igor Garcia and Brendon Levengood were recruited to help take the place of Cuko.
The Minutemen managed one touchdown on returns last season on a 26-yard scamper by Adeoba. They averaged six yards per punt return and 18.5 per kick return and will rely on Talley to be their playmaker in that facet.
Dan Gigliotti can be reached at email@example.com.