March 3, 2015

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UMass receiving corps making great impact

It’s clear that the receivers on the Massachusetts football team aren’t lacking any confidence after the unit’s breakout performance on Saturday.

Just ask Deion Walker, who had a team-high 11 grabs for 162 yards and a touchdown against Ohio in UMass’ best offensive showing in a 37-34 defeat.

“We knew that we’d have to be a focal part of the offense, so I’d definitely say we’ve become the strength,” Walker said. “Don’t get me wrong, you have to run the ball and block up front, but on the outside is where the money’s made.”

Maria Uminski/Collegian

Based on Walker’s analogy, the Minutemen (0-5, 0-2 Mid-American Conference) receiving core hit a “jackpot” last time out. Walker, Alan Williams and tight end Rob Blanchflower combined for 23 catches, 369 yards and four touchdowns, accounting for nearly all of quarterback Mike Wegzyn’s 373 passing yards.

In UMass coach Charley Molnar’s spread offense, the need for playmakers on the outside is an essential component towards attacking defenses. At the start of the season, the Minutemen appeared to lack that commodity and were forced to complete shorter passes instead of opening up the playbook.

But as Wegzyn has continued to progress, more and more chances have been taken downfield, resulting in big plays for the  offense.

Against Ohio, the Minutemen cashed in on a number of those big plays for scores, including a leaping, 27-yard grab by Williams over a defender for their first score and Wegzyn’s first touchdown pass of the season. Williams also had a 50-yard catch-and-run for another score and Wegzyn hit Walker on a fade for a 26-yard strike for a touchdown.

Wegzyn thinks that the receiving unit is one to be feared by the opposition in the coming weeks.

“After last game, I mean, we put up some good numbers, and I’m just hoping to do the same thing again,” he said.

Another  difference in the Minutemen’s air attack has been the chemistry between Wegzyn and the receiving corps. The unit’s timing has opened up throws for Wegzyn that wouldn’t have been made in the season opener at Connecticut on Aug. 30. On Saturday, Wegzyn showcased his trust in his receivers on sideline, comeback routes that require both sides to be on the same page, as well as on deep throws in between coverage.

“That’s a big thing with quarterbacks and receivers,” Wegzyn said. “We have to know each other, how they’re going to run their routes, how they’re going to come out of the breaks, and having that certain amount of faith in each other, that he knows that I’m going to put it in the right spot for him, and I know that he’s going to be running his route in the perfect spot.”

Walker said the entire receiving group has a strong chemistry with its quarterback, but Walker might have an advantage over the rest of the unit based on his interactions with Wegzyn off the field.

“I mean, I live with him, he’s my roommate, so I guess that comes into play a little bit too, kind of knowing where I’m going to be,” Walker said.

UMass will welcome back another threat to the passing game when receiver Marken Michel returns to the lineup on Saturday at Western Michigan. Michel had been sidelined with a shoulder injury for the past three games and was the team’s leading receiver (eight catches, 80 yards) in his only two games of action.

Molnar expects Michel to fit right in with the rest of the receivers barring any setbacks from now until kickoff.

“He’ll fit in, he’ll be one of our starters,” Molnar said. “At the end of the week I’ll evaluate and decide who’s in and who’s out, but I can tell you by the way he’s practicing, unless he were to go backwards, he’ll definitely be one of those three starting receivers.”

Michel’s return to action gives the Minutemen a three-headed attack on the outside in addition to Blanchflower in the middle of the field.

Despite acknowledging the unit’s progression, Molnar isn’t ready to dub the receiving corps as a strength of the team.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a strength, but it’s not a weakness, maybe that’s a better way of saying it,” he said. “It’s not a liability. They’re learning how to practice harder, catch the ball better, more assignment-sound, they’re just improving, like all of the other groups on the team. I’m pleased with their progress, but (it’s) nowhere near where we need to be.”

Stephen Sellner can be reached at ssellner@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.

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