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UMass football embracing the learning curve, culture change under Mark Whipple in spring practice

Maria Uminski/Collegian

Maria Uminski/Collegian

For college football programs throughout the country, spring practice is a new beginning. What happened last season is now meaningless and all eyes are on the future.

What took place at McGuirk Stadium on Tuesday morning was more of a football renaissance.

Surrounded by the construction of the brand new press box and football performance center was an impassioned Massachusetts football team also under reconstruction during its first spring camp under head coach Mark Whipple.

It was only the fourth of the team’s 15 scheduled practices before its April 16 spring game, but the Minutemen appeared to be injected with new life coming off two forgettable 1-11 seasons under Charley Molnar.

“Everything is just so alleviated,” linebacker Stanley Andre said. “The coaches are great, there’s a great bond between the coaches and teammates now. That’s something that we needed here. We all love each other. We’re just out here to win.”

The energy was contagious as UMass went in full pads for the first time this spring for Tuesday’s final 45 minutes. The hip-hop music that was blaring in the first half of practice was no longer necessary as the sounds of players roaring, high-fiving and chest bumping after each big hit filled the stadium during the highly competitive, full contact team drills.

The players could sense something different, too.

“I’d say the mood of the team,” quarterback A.J. Doyle said when asked about the biggest difference between this spring camp compared to the last two under Molnar. “Everyone’s excited, everyone’s ready to go.

“It’s definitely a fresh start. I believe for everyone too,” he added. “Going 2-22 the last two years, it’s something no one wanted to do, but now we have a fresh start, new coaching staff and no one to blame but ourselves. We know we’re ready to work and we’re ready to prove that.”

But with a new coaching staff comes a new system, and much to learn in a short period of time.

Whipple has already begun implementing his offensive scheme, which is a modernized version of the West Coast offense that is likely to mix some ace-back and two-back sets, and said he’s already seen some improvement in the first few practices.

The advanced playbook has been a significant adjustment for Doyle in particular. He spent the last two seasons in Molnar’s spread offense, but so far has been under center taking five-to-seven-step drops – he said he hasn’t done a five-step drop since high school – into the pocket on passing plays in practice.

“It’s been pretty difficult but it hasn’t been bad. It’s kind of weird to say,” Doyle said. “Obviously there’s a lot to learn, but the way the coaches are going about it, the way everyone is going about it, we all want to learn it and we’re all putting in the extra time and effort to learn it.”

The defensive scheme is undergoing some changes as well.

“On the defensive side of the ball we’ve been moving a lot more, which was something that we needed,” Andre said. “We need to actually utilize our talent.”

There’s been a learning curve for Whipple, who first coached at UMass from 1998-2003, this spring as well. The longtime coach has a new crop of players to evaluate as well as teach, leaving him with plenty of practice film to watch, but he said he likes what he’s seen out of them so far.

“We’re working at it. They’re good players,” Whipple said. “We’ve gotta develop some other guys. They’re learning some things we want them to do so that’s good.

“There’s been a lot. It’s all new. Maybe I’ve done too much, but we cut back and just tried to do some other things (Tuesday).”

The Minutemen may still have plenty to learn and adjustments to make, but that new education is being embraced with a new attitude as part of a changing culture in Amherst.

Nick Canelas can be reached at ncanelas@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.

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