Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Football recruiting class expected to fill holes left by this year’s graduates

By Jim Pignatiello, Collegian Staff

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Massachusetts football coach Mark Whipple came into the recruiting process knowing one thing.

If he could just fill a few holes, his Minutemen, who finished the 2002 season at 8-4 (6-3 Atlantic 10), would be the team to beat in the conference in 2003.

Returning next year, Whipple has the A-10’s best returning quarterback, arguably its best returning running back and a very, very good defensive unit. All he needed was to add some quality depth at wide receiver, fill in two holes in the kicking game and acquire some big bodies for the trenches.

Mission accomplished.

“We addressed some things that we needed and [I think] it will take us to the next level,” Whipple said.

Going deep…and high

Whipple, whose team lost three quality wide receivers to graduation – Adrian Zullo, Deshon Hardy and Neal Brown – has to get some production out of a freshman wide receiver this year.

Whipple nabbed two wideouts he expects to compete for major playing time.

“I felt like we had guys who could run,” Whipple said of returning receivers Jason Peebler and Jimmy Howard. “Now we have [some height].”

Brandon London, who stands 6-foot-4, signed on after one year of post-graduate ball at Fork Union Military Academy.

“Brandon is an explosive young man who is still growing,” UMass assistant coach Chris Malone said. “He has a tremendous work ethic, and will provide a great target as a wideout due to his size.”

Rasheed Rancher will give London the biggest push for the third receiver spot.

“Rasheed is a big target at wide receiver, who is extremely agile and runs great routes,” assistant coach Sean Spencer said. “He is a playmaker with the ability to go the distance every time he touches the ball.”

“I wanted to go out and get at least one big receiver. We got two that I think are really talented,” Whipple said. “I felt like, in our red zone, we needed some things in that area. [Their height] will also help the running game [and] the blocking.”

Along with London and Rancher, Whipple inked Rickey Dias from Rehoboth, Mass. and J.J. Moore from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Big cleats to fill

The kicking game was one of the Maroon and White’s greatest strengths last season. But both punter David Sanger and placekicker Doug White have graduated.

A championship-caliber team must have a reliable kicking game, so Whipple went out and nabbed a veteran kicker, Matt Goldstein, who transferred from the University of New Mexico. Goldstein is currently enrolled at UMass and will participate in Spring practice.

Freshman C.J. Koegel will take over the punting duties for the Maroon and White. Koegel, who comes to Amherst from Deerfield Beach, Fla. will also get a chance to handle the kickoff duties. Koegal averaged 43.6 yards per punt as a senior and 48.9 ypp as a junior.

“They probably have better leg strength than both [Sanger and White],” Whipple said. “Now they just need the experience.”

Twice as nice

Bayonne, N.J. running back Bryan Smith got a lot of offers. Word is, Maryland and Clemson wanted the services of the 6-foot-2, 190-pound tackle-breaker who rushed the ball 208 times for 1,687 yards and 26 touchdowns as a high school senior. But there was one catch – he has a twin brother Brandon who can also play a little football.

“Their parents insisted that they go together and Bryan was offered [scholarships] by just about everybody,” Whipple said.

But Brandon, despite being a solid linebacker for Bayonne High School, didn’t get the upper-echelon offers that Bryan did.

Whipple was happy to give them both a shot.

“We would have recruited both of them separately if they were two different guys,” Whipple said.

But while Brandon will definitely be a key contributor in the future at UMass, Bryan is certainly one of the gems of this recruiting class.

“Bryan is another outstanding running back from New Jersey, who we feel can make a major impact on our program,” assistant coach Mike Cassano said. “He is an outstanding athlete, like Marcel Shipp and R.J. Cobbs, but has more height and speed. Bryan is a very natural runner who sets up his blocks very well with his patience and outstanding vision. He is a home run hitter, who is a legitimate threat to score every time he touches the ball.”

“He’s a monster.”

Looking to bulk up the middle of his defensive line, Whipple inked a pair of large tackles who will plug the lanes for the Minutemen this year.

“We have a lot of athletes [on the defensive line],” Whipple said. “We don’t have a real big guy. [Defensive Coordinator] Tom [Masella] wanted that to be an emphasis.”

First, Whipple signed Indiana University transfer Colin Christopher, who will step right in and contribute. At 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, Christopher played 11 career games for the Hoosiers and made 24 tackles, with five tackles for a loss and three sacks.

“Colin’s experience playing in the Big Ten will have an instant impact,” Spencer said. “He plays with a great deal of leverage, and we expect him to be a force at nose guard.”

But if Christopher is big, junior college transfer Robert Savitsky is huge. At 6-foot-6, 355 pounds, Savitsky will be near-impossible to move out of any running hole.

“He’s a monster,” Whipple said. “He’s huge.”

Etc.

Whipple expects Tracy Belton, a defensive back from Fork Union Military Academy, to contribute right away.

“He’s a mature kid,” Whipple said. “A little more physical [than most freshman DBs].”

Lorenzo Perry, last year’s 2002 Gatorade Player of the Year in Rhode Island, is expected to help out immediately on special teams, where UMass lost two key return men in Zullo and Hardy.

“I think [Perry] will help us right away catching punts,” Whipple said.

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