Don’t be surprised by these Minutemen

By Jeffrey R. Larnard

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Please raise your hand if you had high expectations for the Massachusetts football team entering this season.

If your hand is raised, you might be Kevin Morris, somehow connected to UMass Athletics or you were lying to yourself prior to this season.

Three weeks into the season, I’ll admit I’m surprised, and my hand is up. But before I explain my change of heart, let’s discuss what “high expectations” are for No. 15 UMass, the winningest program in the Colonial Athletic Association in the past decade.

A successful season doesn’t mean a second-place finish behind New Hampshire in the CAA North as predicted by the league’s coaches. A successful season means making a return to the NCAA Tournament and making a run at a National Championship. The bar has been set high for this program while under Don Brown’s leadership and by the arm of Liam Coen. The new tandem of Morris and Kyle Havens wouldn’t aim any lower.

Anyone who had low expectations for this year’s squad could point to last year’s disappointing season or the losses to the roster. Brown, then the Minutemen’s head coach, left to become the defensive coordinator at Maryland, and Coen, arguably the program’s greatest quarterback, graduated. Additionally, a strong defense lost a tandem of cornerbacks in Sean Smalls and Courtney Robinson, which used to force opposing quarterbacks to abandon the passing game.

Coming into the season and even to this point, there were and still are questions about whether linebacker Josh Jennings – who was second in 2008 in tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions – would play at all.

The team has plenty of returning starters, such as  safety Jeromy Miles, left tackle Vladimir Ducasse, tailback Tony Nelson and wideout Victor Cruz, but the losses to graduation combined with the sub-par year in 2008 just seemed like too much for one team to overcome in a single offseason.

Fast forward to present time and the Minutemen are 2-1 and 1-0 in the CAA. Better, they could be 3-0 if they could have pulled off the upset over Kansas State. The other two wins were against an Albany squad that looked awful two weeks ago in Amherst and a Rhode Island team that has lost 11 of its last 13 games to UMass. It’s the way the Minutemen won, however, that has me convinced. The Great Danes are a better team than they showed here. Look no farther than their come-from-behind, 20-16 victory over Maine this past weekend when they trailed 16-0 at halftime.

In each game, there has been one common factor: the UMass defense. It resembles the defense of old, one that led the team to a 2006 National Championship Game appearance. It certainly isn’t the defense that allowed teams to run over them last fall.

The questions at cornerback have been answered by converted wideout Ke’Mon Bailey and Corey Davis. Mere weeks before the season started, the positions were unsettled, but their efforts combined with safeties Miles and Shane Viveiros, have once again given UMass a secondary to fear.

Miles said, “The whole secondary came in and filled the shoes for the All-Americans who left in Sean Smalls and Courtney Robinson,” of his secondary.

Now the linebacking core: Jennings is out, but replacing him is Tyler Holmes and Kurt Filler. The two lead the team in tackles and have combined for an interception in each of the first three games – one that went off Filler and into Holmes’s hands against Albany and vice-versa against Rhode Island.

Helping in front is an experienced defensive line that has applied pressure on the opposition from the first play of the season. The difference between last year’s defense and this group is each player’s commitment to a larger role.

“It’s a team effort, and it is eleven guys on every play. I’ve tried to create that mentality here. We’re getting pressure from the front and great second level games,” Morris said of his defense. “Every one is contributing.”

With this mentality, the defense has shut out each of its opponents in three of four quarters and became a team with a knack for forcing turnovers.

“We practice a lot in practice stripping the ball and just making big plays,” senior Brandon Collier said prior to the Rhode Island game. “Turnovers win football games so we’re just out there being optimistic and just making big plays.”

Let’s not forget about Havens who has taken on the task of replacing Coen. While his numbers were not terrific against Kansas State – partially because of a number of dropped passes – they have improved steadily each week. His 329-yard passing game with two touchdowns against URI earned him CAA Offensive Player of the Week. He wears 12 – Coen’s old number – so some people may be confused regarding who is under center if he continues to put up those kind of numbers.

The Minutemen haven’t faced tough teams over the past two weeks, but they had no trouble with either. Their only loss was to a Football Bowl Subdivision team. The real test for this squad will come in the month of October when they face Delaware, UNH, Richmond and Maine, with all but the UNH contest coming on the road. Yet with what we’ve seen so far from the Minutemen, they’ll be up for the challenge and may just surprise us and the rest of the league.

Jeffrey R. Larnard is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]