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Canelas: Things worth watching in Spring Game 2014

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

It’s finally over. After 15 long practices, the Massachusetts football team will get its final tune-up before breaking for summer: Spring Game.

But this isn’t any ordinary spring football game at McGuirk Stadium.

When the Minutemen go under the lights at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, fans will not only get their first look at a nearly renovated stadium, they’ll also see a program under similar reconstruction with the return of Mark Whipple to the UMass sidelines.

After two unremarkable years under Charley Molnar – years filled with bad word choices, clock management blemishes and boxing gloves – the alumni got their wish on Jan. 14 when the architect of the program’s last glory years on the gridiron made his return home to Amherst. On Wednesday, they’ll see a Whipple squad in action for the first time in over a decade.

While Whipple won’t be calling the plays for either side – he told Daniel Malone of MassLive.com that he and defensive coordinator Tom Masella would take a more hands-off approach, putting defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo and special teams coordinator/linebackers coach Ted Daisher in charge of the defense, while offensive line coach Shane Waldron and wide receivers coach Mike Cassano run the offense – just his mere presence should be enough to garner joyous sounds from the stands that haven’t been heard since last decade.

Whipple told MassLive that he’ll pit starters against starters and backups against backups in live game action in one last chance to evaluate his team before August.

“It’s just another evaluation of the players. We’ll just let them play against each other – 1s vs. 1s and 2s vs. 2s,” he said. “We’ll be evaluating how they prepare, how they play and how they handle adversity. We want to see who can make some plays and let them go have fun.”

The game is designed to be fun for both players and fans, but there are certainly reasons why this year’s spring game is worth watching.

Here is a quick look at what I’m looking for on both sides of the ball.

Offense

It all starts with the playbook. Whipple’s pro-style scheme predicts to be far more advanced than Molnar’s spread offense. Instead of living out of the shotgun, the Minutemen will go back under center in a mix of ace-back and two-back sets, with the quarterback dropping into the pocket on passing plays.

For the running backs, this is a dream come true.

Often times last year, the UMass backs would look lost in the backfield as holes failed to open up before they were crunched behind the line of scrimmage.

Now, there is an expectation for much-needed improvements, especially for freshman Lorenzo Woodley. Last year’s highly touted recruit spent most of the 2013 season battling foot and ankle injuries, but will run in a West Coast scheme similar to the one he ran in high school.

Combine that with improved health and a full winter of strength training and Woodley may be taking steps toward becoming the player fans are begging him to be.

For the signal-callers, particularly A.J. Doyle, the adjustment isn’t quite as simple. Doyle’s spent the spring learning to drop back for the first time since high school, on top of learning a long list of new plays.

If anyone has pressure to perform in game action on Wednesday night, it’s Doyle. The sophomore has spent all spring as the top quarterback on the depth chart, but the arrival of 6-foot-6, 225-pound Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel along with a pair of freshmen in the summer could put Doyle’s job security in immediate danger.

Doyle should at least have a strong receiving corps to throw the ball to. Rob Blanchflower will no longer be that big, athletic option at tight end, but the strides Tajae Sharpe made as a sophomore last year (61 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns) and the return of speedy and versatile wideout Marken Michel should make for an electric combination. Transfer Jalen Williams may also be worth watching.

Defense

Watching ever-intense and colorful Sollazzo run the defense should be enough to provide entertainment throughout the game. But what’s really worth watching is how the Minutemen defend against the run in their revival of the 3-4 base defense.

UMass allowed over 300 yards in each of its first three games under Phil Elmassian’s 3-4 before switching to the 4-3 for the rest of the season. I can’t tell you whether or not the switch back will bring more reward under Masella, but how the players respond to the adjustment on Wednesday may give spectators an initial idea.

What’s already apparent is that the personnel will be significantly different. Daniel Maynes is the lone returning starter from last year’s defensive line, with the two end positions up for grabs. Peter Angeh and Enock Asante have been the early front-runners throughout camp, but the opportunity is still open for Joe Tyo and others before training camp.

While Stanley Andre has – as expected – been the unsung leader on defense, the Minutemen have received other surprising contributions at linebacker, especially from Kassan Messiah. After a standout freshman year, Messiah fell out of favor with the coaching staff as a sophomore and was nearly invisible, finishing with 21 tackles in limited action in 11 games.

Messiah has spent spring as a starter at outside linebacker with Trey Seals and was noted by Masella as a player he’s been particularly impressed with. Before covering the team last year, Messiah was a player I was excited to see play as the agile, impact linebacker, but I remember few occasions when his name was called. So for me, his anticipated presence is just as exciting.

The most stability defensively comes in the defensive backfield, especially at cornerback. Sophomores Trey Dudley-Giles and Randall Jette were probably the most dependable defensive players against the pass in 2013, and should only get better as they transition into the leadership roles as upperclassmen.

The safety positions may be less secure, as D’Metrius Williams, Ed Saint-Vil and Joe Colton battle for time in 2014, but it will be worth noting which players see the most time on Wednesday. Williams – best known for tweeting at halftime during a game his freshman year – is an especially intriguing case after seeing limited playing time as a sophomore last year.

***
To say the results of Wednesday’s spring game will carry major significance entering training camp would be far-fetched, but the reality is that this is the final impression these players can make on a brand new coaching staff for the next three and a half months.

That in itself should carry some weight.

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

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