Former UMass star Marcel Shipp overseeing a strong running back competition

By Mark Chiarelli

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian
Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

When Massachusetts running backs coach Marcel Shipp says that real football is returning to Amherst, it carries a significant level of credence.

He’s the beholder of 6,250 career rushing yards spread out over four years in a Minutemen jersey. He’s the UMass record-holder in yards, carries (1,215), rushing touchdowns (58), and ran for a school-record 2,542 yards in his sophomore season en route to a Division 1-AA National Championship in 1998. For good measure, he ran for 244 yards and added three touchdowns in the victory over Georgia Southern.

Shipp also played six seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, rushing for 2,197 career yards. Simply put, he knows a thing or two about running the football. And he’s excited about UMass’ rushing possibilities this season under coach Mark Whipple.

“The pro-style (offense) is real football man,” Shipp said with a laugh.

“That’s the system I’ve always been in and that’s the system I love and that’s what Whipple brings to the table.”

The Minutemen have five or six running backs on the roster vying for a starting job and through one week of training camp, every back still has a legitimate shot. With the switch to an offense more conducive to running backs, Shipp believes they should all feel more comfortable again.

“All these guys love to be in that system,” he said. “I think last year they all felt out of place in the spread offense but now we’re getting back to downhill, have the fullback in there, smashmouth football.”

It’s a running style embraced by sophomore running back Lorenzo Woodley, who described himself as a back who likes to transition from speed to power when making his reads. He said it added to his comfort level knowing he could run in this offense after feeling restricted last year. He battled injuries and rushed for 314 yards and two scores as a freshman.

Part of the development process for Woodley has been learning new reads and running patterns behind his offensive line. As he’s learned the playbook, he’s learning patience as well when making his reads.

“Being slow in my steps and letting my blocks and my pulls get around,” he said when asked about making new reads.

“(I have to) let my blocks develop so when I get the ball and hit the hole it’ll be there instead of me running into one of the linemen from behind.”

Woodley’s making the transition knowing he’s learning from a coach who has experience. Shipp noted he wants to keep his door open to every player and noted “everything they’re going through on and off the field, I’ve gone through already times ten.”

“Coach Shipp is not just a coach, he’s more of somebody you can talk to,” Woodley said. “He’s more of a person you can talk to from experience because he’s done it before, he’s been in our shoes and been to the next level where we’re trying to go.”

Redshirt junior running back Jamal Wilson agreed, saying Shipp was like a “friend” to him.

“He’s the coolest coach I’ve ever had,” Wilson said. “He gives you a lot of tips and details on how to do certain things that he did to help him out in his career and he just feeds that down upon us.”

Wilson – who Whipple described as “steady” – found opportunity last season after a swath of injuries hit the running back position. He combined for 475 all-purpose yards last season and is in the mix for a role this season. He said he’d “love to be that guy” when asked about being the starter and raved about the new running system.

“We got a big offensive line,” he said. “We get in the huddle, we line up and we run the ball and we dare you to stop it. The running backs love that.”

Wilson and Woodley join incoming transfer Drew Harris, shifty junior Jordan Broadnax and sophomore Shadrach Abrokwah — who impressed on Friday, with Whipple saying he looked quicker than he did in the spring — as players vying for the starting job. Freshman J.T. Blyden turned heads as well and the Minutemen will feature a fullback this season, which will presumably go to either Daquan Mack or Matt Tuleja.

With so many players still in the mix, Shipp said each player will need to continue to prepare and compete as if they are the starter.

“Every one of them should look at themselves as the starter until proven otherwise,” Shipp said. “That’s the only way you’re going to compete and get better…all these guys are doing that.”

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli