Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass quarterback A.J. Doyle using spring camp to gain an edge, adjust to new offensive system

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Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

A.J. Doyle knows what it’s like be challenged.

For the last two years, he’s battled injury, superior defenses and, most notably, for the Massachusetts football team’s starting quarterback job, none of which were immediate successes.

Doyle entered the 2013 season as the backup after being outplayed by Mike Wegzyn in both the spring and summer. The sophomore won the starting spot in Week 3 after a pair of dreadful performances by Wegzyn, but inconsistent play – he completed 54.5 percent of his passes for 1,274 yards and six touchdowns to go with 11 interceptions – and a nagging ankle injury left Doyle’s job in question each week as the Minutemen were on their way to a second straight 1-11 season.

This spring, Doyle is facing his biggest test yet.

After spending the last two years in Charley Molnar’s spread offense, where he was taking snaps  from the shotgun and seeing plays develop right from the pocket, Doyle is taking snaps under center and dropping into the pocket for the first time since high school as he tries to learn Mark Whipple’s pro-style offense in a condensed time period.

Everything from learning a seven-step drop, to making the reads and executing a simple run play from under center is new for Doyle. But he said the coaches have made an effort to not overwhelm him and backups Todd Stafford and Andrew Verboys.

“I ran an offense for two years, and now I’m running a completely new one, but the coaches are taking it the right way,” Doyle said. “They’re letting us learn. They’re not throwing too much at us but at the same time they’re giving us enough.”

Making the transition easier for Doyle is quarterbacks coach Liam Coen. Coen started at UMass from 2005-08 and holds nearly every career Minutemen passing record. He’s mentored Doyle through a difficult learning process and his accomplishments are enough to inspire the current UMass signal caller.

“He knows what it’s like to be here, he knows what it’s like to be a quarterback, he knows what it’s like to play in this system. You can’t ask for anything better than that,” Doyle said of Coen.

Coen has been impressed with what he’s seen from Doyle as well, particularly in how quickly he’s adapting to the offense.

“It’s very hard for anybody to do, but especially at quarterback,” Coen said of learning a new offensive scheme. “We’re asking a lot of (Doyle) in a short period of time and from a completely different place. Being under center, as opposed to being in the shotgun, is a lot different. From that standpoint he’s done a great job just transitioning and not turning the ball over, not a lot of exchange bobbles with the center.

“He’s really just learning right now how to take a snap and run a run play. It sounds so elementary, but it’s not. It’s really important, and he’s done a really great job. He’s working at it. It’s definitely a transition, but it’s not hindering his progress at all.”

Despite such progress, Doyle’s starting job for UMass’ Aug. 30 season opener against Boston College is far from secure.

The Minutemen will welcome three new quarterbacks this summer – the most anticipated being Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel – to compete with Doyle for the coveted No. 1 position.

The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Frohnapfel announced his decision to come to UMass in February and will have two years of eligibility left starting this season due to NCAA rules that allow players to play immediately upon transferring if they’ve completed their degree.

Frohnapfel excelled at times for the Thundering Herd, but spent the bulk of his three years – he redshirted as a freshman – at Marshall stuck behind All-Conference USA quarterback Rakeem Cato. Now he’ll come to Amherst with the expectation of being a starter.

Frohnapfel told the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Thursday that he received a lifting and conditioning program from UMass strength coach Mike Golden and a playbook from Coen. He also watches video of practice online.

“I’ll watch the play develop and try to study the quarterback’s reads on each situation, try to see what he saw,” Frohnapfel, who worked primarily out of the shotgun at Marshall, told the Gazette.

Doyle, however, has had the advantage of learning this system in person with the coaches, which could give him an advantage come training camp. But he’s also aware of the talent coming in and knows he has to earn his spot.

“With (Frohnapfel) coming in, he’s an experienced guy, and then the other freshmen coming in, it’ll be a battle,” Doyle said. “But at the same time, I gotta work and put myself that much further ahead of them.

“I’m out here with the guys right now and throwing,” he added. “I’m getting used to all the reads, all the routes, all the drops. But at the same time, I’m gonna have to work even harder when they get here.”

Coen, on the other hand, looks forward to the competition.

“Every position is gonna compete when the time comes, but specifically at this position we want to have the most competition that we can,” he said. “Right now, (Doyle is) doing a great job for us. This is gonna help him tremendously to have this experience in the spring in this system moving forward.”

Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.

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