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Morris leads young squad into 2010 season

Samantha Webber/Collegian

Click here for our breakdown of the Minutemen’s roster.

- Click here for our coverage of UMass’ 27-23 win over William & Mary.

Click here for our piece on the addition of Northeartern transfer, runningback John Griffin.

- Click here for a sidebar on Kyle Havens’ second year as the Minutemen’s starting quarterback.

- Click here for our feature on former UMass running back Matt Lawrence, now with the Baltimore Ravens.

If some of the names on the Massachusetts football roster look unfamiliar this season, don’t be surprised. Entering the second year of the Kevin Morris era, the Minutemen consist of a young mix of talent and veteran transfers from discontinued programs.

UMass returns just eight starters from 2009, four on each side of the football. Despite the inexperience, Morris isn’t going into the season with low expectations.

“We’re very optimistic,” the UMass coach said at media day. “If you’re not optimistic right now, then it’s going to be a long, long year and we’re not looking forward to that at all. We’re looking for these young guys to really get on the map.”

Two fairly young players the Minutemen will rely on heavily this season are captains Tyler Holmes and Emil Igwenagu. Holmes is a true junior who will essentially quarterback the defense from the MIKE (middle linebacker) position. He’s received a lot of attention from media outlets this summer and has been named a preseason All-American. Igwenagu, meanwhile, will be used all around the field offensively and is a rising redshirt junior himself.

Both players will attempt to lead UMass to a strong start to begin the season, something Morris is emphasizing in training camp.

“We’ve made some great gains and we’re a very young team overall that’s looking to mature by week 1,” Morris said. “There’s no time to waste this year coming out. We’ve got to be ready to go from the get-go and that’s our plan and that’s what we’re working towards right now.”

Last season, Morris got the Minutemen off to a quick start in his inaugural year with four wins in the first six games. The most significant victory came against then-No. 4 New Hampshire on Oct. 17 before UMass tailed off and dropped three of the last four contests.

While 2009 served as a learning curve for Morris, this season brings higher expectations for the coaching staff.

“Again, you go through the role, you know what to expect but you haven’t done it,” Morris said of his first year. “I’ve been there and done it and now I can set my own plan in motion, what I’m trying to get accomplished with better vision and better goal-oriented in terms of not only the daily agendas and practices but also for the kids and overall goals. I think we’re much more comfortable overall, the kids understand the plan and the process, and we’re obviously trying to excel and meet those demands.”

Fortunately for Morris, his job will be made easier by the influx of veteran talent from discontinued programs. These transfers include John Griffin, Greg Niland and Anthony Nelson.

Griffin is a tailback who makes the move from Northeastern after three seasons with the Huskies. In his junior year, the Westminster native ran for 1,009 yards on 207 carries with five touchdowns and grabbed 25 passes for 178 yards. For his efforts, he was named First Team All-CAA as well as Northeastern’s Most Valuable Player and Most Improved Player.

Niland, meanwhile, also arrives with Griffin from Northeastern as an offensive tackle. The redshirt senior blocked for a Huskies team that averaged 130.8 rushing yards per game in 2009. The two NU transfers figure to bolster the ground game and allow the Minutemen to pound the rock.

In the passing game, Nelson will look to bring his contributions from Hofstra and help fill the production that former wide receiver Victor Cruz took to the NFL. The senior caught 40 passes for 520 yards and four touchdowns in 2009, including five catches and 71 yards against UMass on Nov. 21.

All three players, along with the other transfers, round out the roster and bring some comfort to Morris, who knows they’ll be important in guiding the young talent.

“With those guys coming in, those are the guys we targeted in the recruiting class when those programs fell through,” Morris said. “We wanted to try to bring in some older guys that have senior leadership qualities that can come in and help our team along and help them in a hurry.”

A big focus for UMass this year will be forcing more turnovers on defense and, more importantly, holding on to the ball on offense. The Minutemen fumbled nine times in 2009 but also threw an inordinate amount of interceptions with 22. Their 31 total giveaways and negative 11 turnover margin ranked second to last behind Towson in the Colonial Athletic Conference.

“Turnovers were huge for us last year,” Morris said. “We were 5-6 for a reason and we gave games away. In the CAA, you turn the ball over, you’re going to lose. From the minute the season was over, we’ve been all about the ball. That’s been our slogan through the winter and through the spring and again in the fall.”

The 2010 schedule for UMass includes noteworthy opponents and venues such as Michigan at Ann Arbor and conference rival New Hampshire at Gillette Stadium. Though fans may be looking ahead, Morris and the team are taking it one day and one game at a time. First on the list will be CAA foe William & Mary in the season opener at McGuirk Stadium on Sept. 4.

Despite possibly being in a transitional year, the Minutemen could attract more eyes and attention than seasons past. If they’re up to the task, that attention could be more than well warranted.

Jay Asser can be reached at jasser@student.umass.edu.

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