A fan’s guide to the UMass football spring game

By Mark Chiarelli

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UMass football team training in the spring of 2013. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

UMass football team training. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

It’s not quite the same as the fall season, but for those itching for a football fix, it will have to do.

The Massachusetts football team hosts its annual spring game Friday which culminates a multi-week spring practice session that began over a month ago. It’s the only true game-type atmosphere the Minutemen will have this spring, and while it’ll come in the form of an intra-squad scrimmage, it’s an important evaluation tool for coaches as the team continues to prepare for the 2015 season.

Here’s everything you need to know about tonight’s spring game.

When: Friday, April 17. 7 p.m.
Where: McGuirk Stadium
Cost: Nothing, it’s free

On the field

If your goal was to catch a glimpse of Minutemen’s cornerstone players, you’ll need to readjust your expectations. UMass announced it will not dress quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, running back Jamal Wilson, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, tight end Rodney Mills, linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox and defensive backs Randall Jette and Trey Dudley-Giles.

It’s a precautionary measure, and while disappointing for both fans and the players themselves, the smart thing to do. Wilson is still on the mend following a season-ending ankle injury last season, Mills, Santos-Knox and Dudley-Giles have all dealt with injuries throughout spring practice and the risk of losing Frohnapfel, Sharpe or Jette heavily outweighs the reward of playing them tonight.

Instead, UMass will use those seven players in a coaching role on the sideline.

So without them, what should fans who choose to attend watch out for?

The team will be split up into two, with quarterbacks Ross Comis and Randall West leading “Team Minutemen” and Austin Whipple and and Andrew Verboys leading “Team UMass,” according to a roster released by UMass Thursday.

A season ago, UMass redshirted both A.J. Doyle and Comis, leaving Whipple as the backup to Frohnapfel. When Frohnapfel missed the final two games of the season due to injury, Whipple stepped up in his absence. Now, the competition for the backup spot is much deeper. Of one interesting note: Doyle, who is a senior, is listed as a tight end for the game tonight despite playing quarterback throughout his tenure at UMass. He was recruited out of high school as both a quarterback and a linebacker. 

Out of the four, Comis is the most intriguing prospect. Standing at 6-foot-2 and wearing No. 2, he resembles former Texas A&M start Johnny Manziel and, by all accounts, sometimes models his play like him too. With Frohnapfel entering his final season there’s intrigue as to whether Comis can take over that spot following next season.

Behind him, here’s three players to keep an eye on.

Running back J.T. Blyden

Blyden missed the final seven games of last season with a concussion after surprising many in training camp and playing his way into meaningful snaps. The coaching staff was impressed with his speed and fellow teammates praised his maturity. Yet he finds himself in a position where he’ll need to earn playing time behind Wilson, Lorenzo Woodley and Shadrach Abrokwah. Friday is a key stepping stone for Blyden.

Linebacker Shane Huber

The last time we saw Huber was two years ago, when he started five of eight games he appeared in as a freshman under then-head coach Charley Molnar before suffering a season-ending knee injury after tearing his ACL and MCL. He missed the ensuing season and redshirted last year as he worked to get back to full health. Friday marks his first game action since, and with an open starting inside linebacker position alongside Santos-Knox next season, could be the first stepping stone toward Huber returning to form.

Kicker Blake Lucas

Lucas’ struggles last season were well-documented. After going 3-of-10 on field goals his sophomore year, Lucas started last year 2-of-4, including a 22-yard miss against Vanderbilt which could’ve won UMass the game. He was removed from field goal duties and worked as a kickoff specialist the rest of the year.

The team-wide kicking woes led UMass to offer a scholarship to incoming freshman Mike Caggiano, who will join the team next year. Lucas’ performance Friday could go a long way in cementing his footing in what should be a serious kicking competition in August.

The game will have four 10-minute quarters, will feature some live hitting and also some situational scenarios.

For those interested in seeing the full rosters for tonight’s game, you can find that here.

Off the field

Of course, with the spring game comes some entertainment for the fans as well.

It figures to be a more relaxed environment for fans in attendance Friday and UMass has put together a number of events and promotions to supplement the game action. Events begin at 4 p.m., when the parking lot adjacent to McGuirk Stadium (Lot 11) opens for tailgating.

The team will then hold a youth clinic at 5:30 and an autograph session at 6 p.m. Gates also open at 6, and the first 1,000 students in attendance will receive a UMass football tank top.

New athletic director Ryan Bamford will also be in attendance. He’ll be a part of an open house at the team’s Football Performance Center, which will also offer a meet-and-greet with Bamford. That will be open from 6:30-8:30 p.m.

And of course, the game is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

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