UMass coach Kevin Morris and the rest of the Minutemen have one question going into the off-season: How can they carry momentum from a winning record and a young team going into next fall with a new quarterback under center in hopes of returning to the postseason?
After opening its season with back-to-back wins against William & Mary and Holy Cross, the Minutemen almost shocked the world by nearly beating Michigan at the Big House in October. But UMass dropped four of its last six games, including a potential playoff “win and you’re in” scenario at Rhode Island and completed the campaign with a .500 Colonial Athletic Association record.
Here is a position-by-position final report card of where the No. 19 Minutemen ended 2010.
Adam Miller: B+
David Brinch: A-
Senior quarterback Kyle Havens was arguably the most improved player in the CAA this season and was a huge reason why UMass was third in the conference in total offense (26.5 points per game) and first in passing offense (413.1 yards per game).
Havens started all 11 games this year, throwing for 2,692 yard, 20 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Against New Hampshire, Havens set a school record for most passing yards in a game with 450.
Havens led the conference in touchdowns and averaged 244.7 yards per game. Havens shined in arguably his biggest game of his career, completing 22-of-29 passes for 222 yards and two touchdowns, including his first career rushing touchdown against the No. 20 Wolverines. With Havens being lost to graduation, the pressing question is who will be under center for UMass in 2011?
It was a strong start, but an average finish. The dynamic duo of Jonathan Hernandez and John Griffin went second and third respectively in the CAA in yards per game.
Hernandez, a junior, averaged 85. 3 ypg and Griffin, a senior averaged 76.6. Hernandez rushed for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, while Griffin piled up 874 yards and five touchdowns. But the blame cannot be put on Griffin and Hernandez’s shoulders, as the Minutemen defense gave up big plays and put UMass in holes late in games down the stretch of the season.
Havens had to throw much more, limiting the tandem’s ability to gain substantial yards. Griffin should be rewarded for coming into a system after three years at Northeastern and producing the way he did, while Hernandez enters the fall of 2011 as the best runner in not only the conference, but in the Football Championship Subdivision.
This unit lost a lot of production with the graduation of Jeremy Horne and Victor Cruz last year.
However, transfers Anthony Nelson and redshirt junior Julian Talley picked up the slack and were productive in Havens’ second season under center. Nelson led the team in receptions with 61 and yards with 830. Talley also led the team with six touchdowns.
Both were tops in the CAA in yards per game and receptions per game. With Nelson graduating, Talley will look to be the No. 1 target for the new quarterback.
Redshirt junior Emil Igwenagu was hurt for three games and will look to lead the Minutemen in 2011. He finished with just 142 receiving yards, while Rob Blanchflower was a pleasant surprise filling in for Igwenagu. Blanchflower started four games and had three touchdowns in 2010. If there is a quarterback that can get this unit the ball, look for both Igwenagu and Blanchflower to have breakout campaigns next season and help balance the offensive attack.
The Minutemen line gave up just 13 sacks and 1.3 per game, good for second in the conference and helped paved the way for Hernandez and Griffin on the ground, who averaged 172 yards per game. Even with the loss of Vladimir Ducasse to the NFL., the line still stood strong. After starting the first half of the season at center, redshirt senior John Ihne suffered a separated shoulder against James Madison. Greg Niland, a transfer from Northeastern, started 10 games at left tackle for the Minutemen. Luckily for Kevin Morris, this group has a number of returnees for next year.
The defensive line hasn’t shown a lot of improvement, although going forward, it should only improve.
The Minutemen struggled to get to other teams’ quarterbacks all season, which contributed to some of the higher scoring scores during the latter part of the season. They allowed over 20 ppg in each of the last three games.
The most notable problems came in the last game against Rhode Island when the Rams crushed UMass’ hopes of a postseason berth in the final minute of the regular season with a score from the 9-yard line.
The linebacker unit was the biggest highlight for the Minutemen featuring Tyler Holmes and Mike Mele. Holmes led the team with five interceptions and returned two for touchdowns.
The two were some of the best defensive players in the CAA. Mele and Holmes tied for 110 tackles apiece, good for fourth-highest in the CAA.
Both players could even make a case for being some of the best in the FCS. A majority of the Minutemen’s wins came from solid linebacker play, especially Holmes’ picks, which consistently kept his team in games.
However, with Mele leaving for graduation, Morris will find himself needing to look down the bench in order to figure out a way to plug the hole alongside Holmes.
The secondary never lived up to the high expectations it had set for itself in previous years, but there were some pretty good positives for the Minutemen to get excited about for next season.
Darren Thellen highlighted the safety unit with 40 solo tackles on the season with six pass deflections. Cornerback Ke’Mon Bailey finished with a team-high seven deflections.
The secondary unit couldn’t put UMass over the edge, but it did establish a decent start that should only get better next season. After all, three of the Minutemen’s interceptions came from the secondary and all of them will return next season.
The special teams got off to a good start at the beginning of the season, starting with Scott Duggan’s punt-block against Michigan. However, the return game still needs some work and it got to a point where it looked like kicker Caleb Violette just couldn’t buy a field goal.
Violette finished the season 9-for-16 after starting the season with a perfect field goal percentage on six attempts. He missed all four attempts from 40-49 yards out, and even more alarming – missed three field goals between 20-29 yards.
At the end of the season, there was talk of freshman Brendon Levengood handling the placekicker position, but that possibility never materialized.
The Minutemen looked really good for most of the season, but their losses to Richmond and Rhode Island showed that Morris and Co. aren’t quite ready to be at the top of the CAA.
The one thing UMass has going for it is that the team will remain mostly intact. The Minutemen have plenty of depth waiting to step up so there is a lot of promise going into next year. Even though they didn’t make the FCS playoffs, this team’s 6-5 record is nothing to overlook, especially when you consider the fact that the Maroon and White were a minute away from contending in the postseason.
David Brinch and Adam Miller are Collegian columnists. David can be reached at email@example.com. Adam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.