New quarterback will lead balanced roster for Minutemen

By Michael Wood

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Jeff Bernstein

Jeff Bernstein

In its last season as part of the Colonial Athletic Association, the Massachusetts football team will rely on the leadership of a few key veterans on both sides of the ball to teach a young roster how to be successful.

“About 40 percent of the roster is brand new,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said in an interview with UMassAthletics.com. “So we need to get those guys out and running around in very active, high-intensity situations and see how they perform.”

Position-by-position, the Minutemen are young, but with the assistance of a few seasoned players, there is reason for excitement in Amherst this fall.

Quarterback

The loss of 2010 starter Kyle Havens leaves the Minutemen with a serious question about who will lead the offense in 2011. In two years with UMass, Havens threw for 4,600 yards, 29 touchdowns and led the Maroon and White as a senior to an average of 404 yards of total offense-per game (22nd in NCAA).

Havens also set a school record for passing yards in a single game against New Hampshire (450) and engineered an offensive attack that nearly defeated Michigan in Ann Arbor. His graduation leaves big shoes to fill for whoever Morris deems worthy as starting quarterback.

Enter Brandon Hill and Kellen Pagel, who appear to be the frontrunners for the starting job. Hill is a redshirt freshman from Audubon, N.J. where he was a two-sport star, doubling as a basketball player. In his senior season at Audubon, Hill threw for 1,739 yards and 15 touchdowns while only tossing two interceptions. While he has yet to play a down of NCAA football, Hill said he believes he is ready to step in and lead the UMass offense.

“Last year I learned a lot from Kyle [Havens],” said Hill. “He kind of took me under his wing and I got a lot of information [about playing quarterback in college]. I feel like I’m ready to play, I feel like I have the ability to play and I’m just doing my best, that’s all I can do.”

Pagel, the son of 12-year NFL veteran Mike Pagel, transferred to UMass from future MAC foe Bowling Green. Pagel saw the majority of the snaps in the squad’s spring game earlier in the year, where he threw three touchdowns. Morris said he has seen enough from Pagel to consider him for the starting position as well.

Backfield

The Minutemen achieved some success utilizing a double-barreled running game last season, but the loss of John Griffin has forced them to revert back to the traditional single-back system.

That leaves Jonathan Hernandez to carry the load himself.

Hernandez, who led the team in rushing yards (938) and touchdowns (nine) a year ago, is back for his senior season and his teammates will lean heavily on him, especially with a young quarterback.

“Offensively, it’s going to run through Jon Hernandez, our All-League tailback,” Morris said in an interview with UMassAthletics.com. “He’s a great player for us. He’s back for his senior season and you’ve got Emil Igwenagu at the tight end position and [Julian] Talley outside [at wideout], so those three seniors are really going to lead the way while we have a young quarterback stepping up into the mix for the first time.”

Hernandez will have a small supporting staff behind him. Jamar Smith, a redshirt sophomore, and Alan Williams, a redshirt junior, will each see playing time in spurts whenever Hernandez needs a spell, or in multiple running back packages. Morris keeps no secret about his confidence in the veteran.

“Running, catching, blitz pickup, he’s excellent at it all,” Morris added in another interview. “His practices have been outstanding and he’s won MVP jerseys multiple times and he’s won what we call the ‘money shirt,’ which is three MVPs in a row.”

Receiving

Talley leads a pack of inexperienced receivers.

Last season in the Colonial Clash, Talley caught eight balls for 111 yards and a touchdown, and ever since that game, he has been the go-to receiver for the Minutemen. He was also named to the CAA Preseason All-Conference team this summer.

Though Morris has a lot of confidence in Talley, he admitted the receiver still has some breaking-in to do.

Jesse Julmiste and Tom Gilson seem to be getting the first crack at making the starting lineup.

Julmiste, a senior, served most of his years at UMass as a kick returner. Last season he returned 12 times for 184 yards and has experience in the passing game.

Gilson, another senior from Mansfield, Mass., has played 17 games in his career, but has yet to catch a pass. Behind him is a plethora of young talent with seven underclassmen fighting for their chance.

Should the seniors play well, it would allow Morris to redshirt several of the skilled young players and get an extra year of eligibility out of them down the road when they have developed enough to impact the team.

Where the Minutemen do have experience is at tight end. For the second consecutive season, Igwenagu will serve as a co-captain.

He returns after being sidelined by injury for most of last season and, alongside Rob Blanchflower, gives UMass a second viable weapon at tight end. Igwenagu has 36 catches for 441 yards in 31 games for his career.

Defensive Line

Courtney Jackson is the player to watch on UMass’ defensive line.

After missing three games due to an injury, he started three games last season and recorded 15 tackles and two sacks. Jackson represents more essential senior leadership on a young team and his experience playing both ends of the defensive line will go a long way throughout the season.

“We were young last year on defense and now we’re young again but with experience,” said Morris. “The guys getting their feet wet last year should really help us this year and I’m very excited about their progress in the preseason.”

Another player to watch is Galen Clemons, a redshirt sophomore who transferred to UMass from Central Michigan. He is gaining praise from Jackson as well as other players and coaches after his performance in preseason camp and figures to add another dimension to the defensive line and the pressure UMass puts on opposing offenses.

“We feel really strong about the defensive line,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a guy named Galen Clemons who I think is going to shock a lot of people this year. He’s a really high-motor guy. [With guys like] Charles Thompson [and] Kevin Byrne, these are reliable guys we’ve got up front.”

Linebackers

Senior Tyler Holmes returns for his final year at UMass. For the second consecutive season, he is a co-captain, and this year, he’s also the CAA Preseason Player of the Year.

Holmes has given that honor in July, before camps began this summer.

“It’s a tremendous honor for me,” Holmes said in an interview at CAA Media Day. “This is one of the best conferences in the league and to be voted one of the top players in the league means a lot to me. It also puts a little pressure on and makes me get ready for the fall.”

There is no question that Holmes is the leader on defense and that other players look to him for guidance. Even his coach expects greatness from him and the season hasn’t started yet. Despite moving to a 3-4 defense, Morris expects Holmes to have no trouble adjusting.

“Tyler Holmes is the highlight name on defense. He’s a two-time All-American,” Morris said. “If you look at a guy like Tyler Holmes, he was an All-American as an outside-backer, he was an All-American as a middle-backer, and now we’ve got him back inside again. So I expect nothing less from Tyler.”

Holmes anchors the linebacking corps which has the challenge of learning the 3-4 scheme.

With an extra back lining up in the box than in the 4-3 scheme, each linebacker will have to learn new positioning and assignments to make the system successful. It’s safe to say that if Holmes and his teammates can learn and perfect the system quickly, they should have another solid season.

Defensive Backs

The Minutemen had a young secondary last season, but considering its lack of experience, the defensive backfield had a pretty good year. This time around, the backs are still young, but are looking to go from “pretty good” to “excellent”.

Redshirt junior Darren Thellen is the oldest and most experienced back of the bunch at strong safety and is accompanied by cornerback Mike Lee, safety Christian Birt and Antoine Tharpe. All were starters last season, save for Birt, but the unit combined to allow 184.3 yards-per-game.

Together they make up a good defensive secondary and one that should improve under the team’s new 3-4 scheme. A 3-4 allows for more speed all around and, giving younger players the chance to flourish.

A new but familiar face will also practice with the defensive backs this fall. Basketball standout point guard Gary Correia is using his final year of eligibility to play cornerback for the Minutemen.

Michael Wood can be reached at [email protected]