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Young receivers vie for starting roles vacated by graduates from UMass football team

(Jediah Zuraw-Friedland/ Daily Collegian)

With little turnover of active players at the wide receiver position from 2016 to 2017 for the Massachusetts football team, quarterback Andrew Ford and wide receiver Andy Isabella are tasked with getting the new receivers ready for the upcoming season.

There are still roughly three and a half months until the Minutemen and Hawaii kickoff at McGuirk Stadium to begin their 2017 college football season. But with the team already well into spring practice and the intrasquad Spring Game a week from Thursday, the Minutemen are trying to figure out who Ford is going to throw to come the fall.

Of the seven returning receivers, four did not see playing time in 2016. Isabella, Sadiq Palmer and Connor Lemieux are the only three receivers that UMass has returning who saw some game action last season. Isabella’s 801 receiving yards and seven touchdowns led all Minutemen wide receivers in 2016 and turned the 5-foot-9 receiver into one of Andrew Ford’s favorite targets for UMass.

From not even starting week one of last season to being considered one of the Minutemen’s more dangerous weapons now, Isabella not only has taken on a bigger role as a player but also as a leader.

“Like we’ve been talking about, a lot of young guys in the room and he’s out there and he’s bringing them right along with him,” Ford said of Isabella. “And he’s telling them what he’s learned being in the system for three years now. Really I think he is a really big part of why the wide receiver room has been so successful this spring and taking those guys under his wings and teaching them how to be successful at this level.”

While not necessarily a loud guy, Isabella tries to lead by example and help the freshman get ready to play at a collegiate football pace. He says that they have the talent but there is still room to grow.

“So a lot of guys are learning a lot and they’re slowly learning the plays, so I think that is a big part of what I need to do is to teach them how to learn the plays and little tricks to learn the plays,” Isabella said. “But showing them around with what to do, sometimes they’re just standing around not sure of what to do and I can point them in the right direction.”

In his second season with the team, Ford will once again have to try and build a connection with wide receivers that may very well become his new favorite targets. According to Ford, building a connection is “crucial.”

“It’s important, it is actually crucial because each guy runs a route a little bit differently, each guy comes out at a different tempo a different speed,” Ford said. “So for me, I have to get on the same page with each and every single guy that way I know where they’re going to be when I want to throw the ball.”

The loss of popular targets such as Jalen Williams, Bernard Davis and Dan Jonah means that there are spots for the new Minutemen to fill. Aside from Isabella, Williams was a physical receiver who found his way into the end zone six times in 2016. As of now, the front runner to fill that vacant spot is sophomore Sadiq Palmer.

Palmer’s soul receiving touchdown last season came against Mississippi State on Sep 24. The 19-yard reception put the Minutemen within six with four minutes and 59 seconds left remaining in the game, it was his only catch of the day.

With Williams graduated, Ford believes that Palmer has the opportunity to take control of that role. At roughly the same height as Williams, Palmer has put on some weight in the offseason and working on being more physical at the line of scrimmage.

“Oh it’s huge, Jalen was a big time player for us and I think Sadiq is a very similar player to him, they’re going to be playing the same spot,” Ford said. “You know we’re going to move Sadiq around put him all over the field. We really like him as a match up problem, you know we can put him all over the place and he’s just handling it really well, he’s a really smart receiver.”

Palmer was only able to play alongside Williams for one season but he still managed to pick up some tips from the senior wide out last year.

“He was like a possession receiver, just as I am,” Palmer said of Williams. “I watched them through practice. The main thing I got out of him was his get off. The way he got off the line, it was fast and his release was always good so that’s just some things I’ve picked up from him.”

Philip Sanzo can be reached at psanzo@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.

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