FOXBORO — No, A.J. Doyle was not perfect, but then again, not much about the Massachusetts football team has been this season.
Although the true freshman quarterback’s first collegiate start ended in a fashion disappointingly similar to that of any number of UMass’ other 10 losses this season, Doyle’s encouraging play and poise under center in Friday’s 42-21 loss to Central Michigan will go a long way in helping to shape the Minutemen’s burgeoning offseason quarterback competition.
Count UMass coach Charley Molnar among those impressed.
“(Doyle is) pretty poised in the pocket,” he said. “He’ll come off of his first receiver and move onto his second (progression) … he made a great check (down pass) where he threw the touchdown to Deion (Walker) there in the third quarter.
“So, he’s certainly on target to be a good player as he moves on into the future.”
Molnar said earlier in the week that his new starter would not be running the full version of the offense that fellow freshman and starting quarterback for the Minutemen’s previous 11 games Mike Wegzyn had been operating under. Even with those limitations, Doyle threw for 253 yards – good for the team’s third-highest total this season – two touchdowns and three interceptions on 30-of-45 passing.
Throughout the game, especially during the first 35 minutes or so that saw UMass come back from a 14-point deficit to open up a 21-14 lead, Doyle looked mature beyond his years on the field. When given time to throw, he stood tall in the pocket, worked through his receiver reads and kept drives moving, often with the help tight end Rob Blanchflower, who finished with career-highs in receptions (10) and yards (100).
Even when things started to crumble for the Minutemen in the second half, the situation never felt as dire as it had against Buffalo a week ago, largely due to the impression Doyle had made.
Still, despite the strong showing, Molnar wasn’t about to forgive Doyle’s three turnovers, warning against a premature coronation.
“He does make errors,” Molnar said. “He’s not perfect. He’s got some things to learn.”
Even with a number of ill-advised and untimely throws, it’s safe to say Doyle’s hat is squarely in the ring for the starting quarterback job going into next season.
“I’ve said it to both those quarterbacks many times,” Molnar said, “that this is going to be an open competition between these two and whoever else joins the fray over the next four years.”
Molnar also said that with a stronger showing against the Bulls last week, Wegzyn might’ve been able to nudge the door on a quarterback arms race that much more closed. Instead, the embattled signal caller that has shouldered much of the blame for the Minutemen’s disappointing season struggled once again, jumpstarting what will likely become Doyle-for-quarterback campaign amongst a section of the fan base.
The result is a full-fledged quarterback controversy for UMass.
With little else to play for, Molnar said he wanted to give Doyle an opportunity to show what he has against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in a situation in which the game’s outcome wasn’t already decided. He said he needed to see Doyle get a start under his belt in 2012 before coming to any conclusions about what his inexperienced quarterback might develop into in 2013 and beyond.
Molnar got what he wanted and maybe more. He and his staff have a body of evidence, however limited, to work with during their upcoming decision-making process. Yes, spring practices and summer workouts will go a long way in determining the winner of the Minutemen’s quarterback competition, but Doyle was fortunate enough to get in the last word.
Daniel Malone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.