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UMass football readies for season-opener against Hawaii

(Caroline O’Connor/ Daily Collegian)

After nine long months, the Massachusetts football team is back in the swing of things.

Only a few days remain until UMass is set to welcome Hawaii in the first contest of the 2017 slate, Saturday August 26th.

“(Hawaii’s) a good team, they won seven games, won a bowl game (in 2016),” coach Mark Whipple said. “They beat us (last year) and it went down to the wire, so it’s probably going to be that kind of game.”

UMass lost 46-40 to the Rainbow Warriors last year in its final game of the season.

The Minutemen are coming off a disappointing 2016 season in which they compiled a measly 2-10 record, and will look to start this campaign off on the right with a win Saturday.

“The mindset going into is, we’re taking it day by day,” redshirt senior linebacker Steve Casali said. “We’re just not thinking that much into the future.”

Fifteen starters return to the UMass roster this season (eight defensive, seven offensive), tying the Minutemen for the 10th-most in the country.

Among the returners is redshirt senior tight end Adam Breneman, and he’s looking forward to the rematch with Hawaii.

“We feel good,” Breneman said. “Hawaii is a really good football team. We obviously have that sour taste in our mouth from the last game of 2016, but we’re excited.”

Breneman put together one of the best seasons in Minutemen history at the tight end spot a season ago, receiving for 808 yards and eight touchdowns on the year. He tied for second best in team history as well as second best of any tight end in the entire FBS, in both categories.

“He’s just a great leader,” Whipple said of Breneman. “He was hurt a little bit in camp but really had a good last few days. I’m excited about him.”

The Rainbow Warriors look to break the .500 mark this season. In Nick Rolovich’s second season as head coach, Hawaii finished with a 7-7 record, which included a 52-35 Hawaii Bowl win over Middle Tennessee State.

Quarterback Dru Brown and running back Diocemy Saint Juste mark the key returners on offense for Hawaii.

“The main thing is to stop the run,” Casali said. “If we stop the run, everything will take care of itself.”

Saint Juste rushed for 122 yards and one touchdown in the Rainbow Warriors’ season-concluding victory last season.

One positive UMass hopes to build off of is its offense, which ranked 43rd in the nation in passing yards per game at 256.7 yards in 2016.

Along with Breneman, junior wide receiver Andy Isabella will be a top threat for the Minutemen offense, following a breakout sophomore year in which he racked up 801 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

Whipple has not yet named a starting quarterback between redshirt juniors Ross Comis and Andrew Ford, but plans to use both in the opening contest Saturday night.

Comis started the first three games last year, completing 28-of-63 pass attempts for 370 yards and one touchdown, before suffering a season-ending injury at Old Dominion. Ford started the remaining nine games, recording 222 completions on 365 attempts for 2,665 yards and 26 touchdowns.

“I think we have a really good game plan,” Breneman said. “When it comes down to it, the plays are going to be there to be made and we just got to execute.”

UMass is going to need its run game to step up this year after averaging just 99.4 rushing yards, good for fifth-worst in the FBS in 2016.

Junior Marquise Young will carry most of the responsibility at running back, following a sophomore season in which he ran for 898 yards and four rushing touchdowns.

Come this Saturday, the Minutemen just want to start off on the right foot, and worry about the specifics later.

“(The goal is to) win the first game and take it week by week,” said Casali.

“We got to earn some respect around the country, and the only way that’s going to happen is if we start winning football games,” Breneman said. “I’m excited to get started.”

Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. at McGuirk Alumni Stadium and can also be watched on NESNplus.

Ryan Ames can be reached at rames@umass.edu or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.

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