Minutemen re-tooled for return run at title

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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The 2006 Massachusetts football team was a lot like last year’s version of the Chicago Bears. Both teams utilized a strong running game, defense and special teams all the way to their respective championship games.

However, both teams succumbed in the end to high-octane offenses. The Bears lost to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, while game-breaking running back Steve Baylark and the Minutemen fell short in the Division I-AA Championship against Appalachian State.

But under the stewardship of UMass coach Don Brown, the Maroon and White have one thing going for them that the Bears don’t – a star quarterback.

OFFENSE

Quarterback

No matter which way you analyze him, the man under center for the Minutemen just may be the best they’ve ever had. Liam Coen has both the numbers (more on that in a minute) and a national title appearance to his credit – all after just two years at the helm.

The red-shirt junior was named an all-conference third-team quarterback in 2006, but that honor failed to do Coen justice, as his season was far from third-rate.

Coen had the third 3,000-yard season in school history (3,016), completed 65 percent of his passes (a school record) and threw 26 touchdowns (third most) during last year’s run to the national championship. Coen kept good care of the football, throwing just 10 interceptions in 15 games and he went through a stretch of five games without throwing a single pick.

He’s still learning and should be even better in ’07. With Baylark in the fold last year, the Minutemen ran 212 more times than they passed (555 to 343). But with Baylark gone, coupled with the maturation and emergence of Coen, expect that to change.

Just like his all-conference ranking.

Backing up Coen for the second consecutive year is Scott Woodward, who also returns as the holder on special teams. The lefty threw just six passes last year, but has experience with the system.

Scott Wallace and highly-touted freshman Octavious Hawkins are unlikely to see time under center.

Running Back

Brown will go to more of a dual-running back attack this year without Baylark. Powerful sophomore back Tony Nelson will likely see the majority of the time carrying the ball, but speedy senior Matt Lawrence will get his share of carries as well. Both averaged just over five yards per rush in minimal carries last season.

Nelson showed his playmaking skills against William ‘ Mary in last year’s 48-7 drubbing at McGuirk Stadium, rushing for three scores and 69 yards. Lawrence gives the offense more flexibility, as he can line up at fullback and catch passes out of the backfield.

A trio of young backs will compete for playing time behind their more experienced teammates, including red-shirt freshman Alphonsus Aguh and true freshmen Jonathan Hernandez and Emil Igwenagu – both of whom were considered among the most prolific high school backs in Massachusetts last season.

The Minutemen also have a group of fullbacks on the roster that contribute mostly on special teams – most notably E.J. Barthel, who started three games at fullback.

Pass Catchers

Coen loses the luxury of throwing to all-conference first-team wide receiver Brandon London this season, but has a trio of talented playmakers in tight end Brad Listorti and receivers J.J. Moore and Rasheed Rancher.

All three pass catchers are red-shirt seniors and have developed a good rapport with the man responsible for getting them the football. Moore is one of the team’s four captains, Listorti is considered one of the best tight ends in the Football Championship Subdivision and Rancher has two of the three longest touchdown catches in school history.

Aside from being the team’s primary punt returner, Moore finished last season second on the team in receptions (46), third in receiving yards (594) and tied for second in touchdown catches with four. He’s a consistent target for Coen, becoming the eighth Minuteman with over 100 receptions in his career. He needs just 44 more in his senior season to pass London for second on the school’s all-time list. His 1,320 career receiving yards rank ninth in school history.

Rancher is a big target on offense, measuring at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds. He led the team in average yards per catch last year at 16.5, although he didn’t record a 100-yard game in 2006. His 362 yards ranked fifth on the team, while his 22 receptions placed him fourth.

While big things are expected of both Rancher and Moore with London gone, Listorti may be Coen’s best and most consistent target. The 6-foot-4 tight end has hauled in a pass in 14 straight games entering the season and ranked second on the team in yards last year (604) and third in receptions (38). He had perhaps his best career performance when it mattered most, catching five passes for 78 yards and a touchdown in the title game against the Mountaineers.

The main targets through the air after those three are not yet determined, but senior Michael Omar (7 rec., 140 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore Ke’Mon Bailey will likely battle for the third receiver spot.

The Minutemen have a plethora of other receivers on the roster, as up to nine players will try to work their way onto the field. At tight end, there are three backups – most notably primary reserve Ian Jorgensen, who had two touchdown catches in the playoffs last year.

Offensive Line

The offensive line was terrific a season ago, helping pave the way for remarkable campaigns from both Baylark and Coen. The expected starting front-five is both experienced (three seniors) and imposing – with an average size of 6-foot-4 and 303 pounds.

But it’s the two smallest linemen who anchor the unit. Red-shirt senior left guard and captain Matt Austin (the lightest at 285 lbs) is a Lindy’s preseason All-American, while senior center Nick Diana (the shortest at 6-foot-3) is a preseason all-conference selection.

Last season’s group led the conference in fewest sacks allowed, as Coen was taken down 16 times in 15 contests. Vladimir Ducasse (left tackle), Chris Hopkins (right guard) and Sean Calicchio (right tackle) will be in charge of helping the two all-conference picks maintain that high level of play as a unit.

According to Brown, Ducasse was their top recruit in 2006 – while Calicchio and especially Hopkins have experience as starters. Ducasse isn’t locked in as the starter yet on the left side, with junior transfer from Boston University Ben Coblyn posing a threat in more ways than one – standing at 6-foot-8 and 296 pounds. Coblyn actually played basketball at BU, not football.

Ten additional players are hoping to see some time on the line, while guard Biff Gottehrer and freshmen Josh Samuda and Tim Nolan are likely to be the ones to get most of it.

DEFENSE

Defensive Line

The front four will look much different this season, but will likely out-produce last year’s group. Half of the 38 sacks UMass recorded in 2006 came from members on the line, and only one player who contributed to that total is no longer with the team (John Hatchell – 5 sacks).

It will be a young group with three red-shirt sophomores expected to start, but defensive tackle Brandon Collier started 10 games last season and had 52 tackles and three sacks. Nose tackle Kyle Harrington is powerful (435 lb. bench-press) and left end Michael Hanson is a great athlete who converted from linebacker.

If they need any guidance on the line of scrimmage, they should just turn their heads and imitate whatever left defensive end David Burris is doing.

A red-shirt senior and a preseason all-conference selection, Burris led the team in sacks (8.5) and tackles for a loss (16) – while also recording 77 tackles and two forced fumbles. The former walk-on will be a menace to opposing signal callers in the Colonial Athletic Association this season.

The expected backups have experience and performed well when called upon last year. Ends Darrlyn Fenner and
Darnel DeLaire combined for 30 tackles, while tackle Wilner Alexis recorded 1.5 sacks. Shaun Allen, Matt Stolte and Bob McLaughlin may also see some time.

Linebacker

This year’s group of linebackers will certainly miss Brad Anderson and his 112 tackles from 2006, but the Minutemen actually return two starters who had more takedowns than Anderson.

Defensive captains Jason Hatchell and Charles Walker paced the Minutemen with 134 and 131 tackles, respectively, last season – ranking them second and third in the conference. Walker had 2.5 sacks and will man the middle, while Hatchell had 6.5 tackles for a loss and will play on the strong side. Both are preseason all-conference selections. Hatchell has led or tied for the team-lead in tackles in 16 of his last 26 games.

Starting on the weak side will be George Byrd, who had 32 tackles and a sack last season. According to rivals.com, a few years ago, he was the fourth-best linebacker in the country to go to an FCS school. Byrd should develop nicely alongside two of the best linebackers in the FCS.

With strong starters at linebacker it will be difficult to see playing time, but Josh Jennings and Cesar Rosario should get their fair share. Rosario – the starting long snapper – had 15 tackles last season and Jennings is considered by Brown to be the “starting fourth linebacker.” Andy Resende-Gomes and Anthony Rouzier excel on special teams and may also get time at LB.

Defensive Back

Without question, the defensive backfield is going through the biggest transition this season. Three exceptional starters were lost to graduation, including safety James Ihedigbo – who was bestowed with virtually every honor possible in 2006.

Along with safety Brandon Smith and cornerback Tracy Belton, the three departed starters combined for 211 tackles, 12 sacks and seven interceptions.

With three big-time playmakers no longer in the fold, it will be up to cornerbacks Sean Smalls, Courtney Robinson and Brandon Freeman and safeties Jeromy Miles and Michael Meggett to step up.

The defense got a big boost when Miles transferred here from Navy before the spring. The free safety was named ECAC Freshman of the Year and was an honorable mention Freshman All-American by The Sporting News. He’s a great athlete and is a difference-maker on defense, evidenced by his 61 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2006.

Meggett had 12 of his 19 stops in the postseason last year, and led the team in interceptions during spring football. Eric Dickson (14 tackles), Brian Ellis (13 tackles and one interception), Chris Pollard and James Carven will backup at safety.

The turnover at cornerback isn’t as extreme, with Freeman, Robinson and shut-down corner Smalls all returning. The trio possesses tremendous athletic ability as a group, and all have good size. Robinson has a knack for the ball, and Smalls essentially shuts down one side of the field – as opposing quarterbacks avoid throwing in his direction.

Recent transfer Reshaude Goodwin (Boston College) has exceptional speed, and will compete for time along with Corey Davis, Spencer Ridenhour and Keiron Brown at cornerback.

Special Teams

The kicking game last season was phenomenal, as both place-kicker Chris Koepplin and punter Christian Koegel had two of the best seasons in school history.

Koepplin returns as the starting kicker after having a record-breaking 2006 performance. The senior’s 99 points set a single-season school record for a kicker and his 16 field goals tied the school’s single-season mark. He connected on 69.6 percent of his attempts and was 51-for-52 on PATs.

Brett Arnold is the favorite to be Koegel’s replacement at punter, but Ryan Logan is also in the mix. The winner will have some big – and powerful – shoes to fill. Armando Cuko will likely handle the kickoffs.

The aforementioned Moore will handle punt returning duties (30 returns, 8.1 average in 2006), while Robinson will take the majority of the kickoffs (21 returns, 23.3 average). Goodwin may see time at both return spots.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]