Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Three up three down: Quarterback, defensive line play in focus for UMass

By Andrew Cyr

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Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

For the Massachusetts football team, Friday’s spring game marked the start of the 2015 season and a taste of what’s to come for one of the most anticipated seasons in program history.

The motto is fairly straightforward for the season: bowl game or bust.

And while Friday’s 13-10 win for Team UMass may not be much of an indication for what’s in store for the Minutemen, football was at least being played against in Amherst.

Here’s a look at three ups and three downs from the spring game.

Ups

Defensive Line Play

The defensive line was by far the unit that stood out the most in Friday’s game. With nose tackle Daniel Maynes gone, Robert Kitching will play a bigger role this year clogging up the middle of UMass’ 3-4 defense. Kitching finished with five tackles, two sacks for 11 yards lost and a batted ball at the line of scrimmage.

Both Sha-Ki Holines and Peter Angeh played well after appearing in all 12 games for UMass last year. Holines finished with two tackles and Angeh finished with one tackle and a sack resulting in an eight-yard loss.

Reserve nose tackle Al Leneus also recorded a sack for Team Minutemen.

What was an inexperienced and young group last season, the defensive line will have much higher expectations for the 2015 season.

Shane Huber

After tearing his ACL and MCL two years ago and missing all of last season, Friday’s game was the first action he’s seen in over a calendar year. Huber looked particularly strong with his pursuit and instincts making plays both in pass coverage and stopping the run. He finished the game with seven total tackles, including one for a loss of three yards and an interception courtesy of Austin Whipple.

Huber, and Steve Casali (nine tackles) will be the frontrunners to play alongside Jovan Santos-Knox this fall with the departure of Stanley Andre.

The kicking game

There’s no hiding how much the kicking game hurt the Minutemen last season. But both Blake Lucas and Logan Laurent combined for a perfect three-for-three Friday.

Laurent made the game-winning 31-yard field goal with time expiring and made his 40-yard attempt in the final minute of the first half. Blake Lucas drilled his 24-yard attempt on Team Minutemen’s first drive, while his second resulted in a botched snap that hit holder Andrew Verboys in the facemask.

With incoming freshman Mike Caggiano entering the mix in the fall, the kicker position battle will be a competition to keep an eye on in camp.

Downs

Quarterback Play

With the starting job locked up by Blake Frohnapfel, who missed the final two regular season games last year with a leg injury, the focus now shifts to who will be the backup in the 2015 season.

None of the four quarterbacks playing – Whipple, Verboys, Ross Comis and Randall West – played particularly well with the exception of two drives from Comis and a touchdown pass from Whipple. Comis looked sharp on his first drive going 3-of-4 for 41 yards, leading to a Lucas field goal, and again on his final drive that ended in a two-yard touchdown run on a read-option.

Comis struggled with pressure up the middle from the defensive line, resulting in a series of over-thrown receivers and “happy feet” in the pocket. He finished 8-for-20 with 130 yards.

Both Whipple and Verboys threw interceptions that sailed high on their targets downfield. Whipple threw the lone touchdown pass on a crossing-route to Dan Jonah – who once played baseball at UMass – and delivered the throw while taking a strong hit in the pocket.

West didn’t show much on Friday attempting only four passes, three of which were completions. Friday was his first appearance since playing in high school after spending all of last season rehabbing a knee injury. While it’s still early in the process, a redshirt season for West may not be out of the picture.

A.J. Doyle played at tight end and will likely stay there for the 2015 season.

Tight end depth

With Jean Sifrin leaving for the NFL draft, the tight end position will go through an extreme overhaul in the 2015. Rodney Mills, who sat out of Friday’s game with an undisclosed injury, isn’t a true tight end who lines up on the line of scrimmage; rather he’s used all over the field by Whipple and has taken snaps both in the backfield and outside the numbers as a wide receiver.

Brandon Howard is the only other tight end that saw significant playing time for UMass last season and was primarily used as a blocker. Howard finished with one reception for six yards on the Friday and was not a big part of the passing game for Team Minutemen.

Both Sharif Custis and Shaquille Harris finished with a reception apiece for Team UMass, while Doyle and Jordan Fiske did not record receptions for Team Minutemen. Tight end Jon Denton, who played in 12 games last season primarily as a blocker, was recently removed from the team’s roster, furthering the depth issue.

The tight end depth is certainly one of the Minutemen’s biggest issues heading into the 2015 season.

Verboys’ hold and Jackson Porter’s pass interference

There are two particular plays that stood out as negatives.

The first was a Jackson Porter defensive pass interference in the first quarter that resulted in a first down. Porter started eight games last season and was constantly a target of opposing teams. Porter was beat by Howard on the play and basically tackled him in the end zone before the ball was in the vicinity. Porter’s improvement from year one to year two will be a big factor for the secondary moving forward.

The second play was the botched hold from Verboys with 57 seconds remaining on the Lucas field goal attempt. Frohnapfel was the holder for UMass last season and with his absence on Friday, Verboys filled that role. The snap was on target, however it hit off his facemask resulting in a turnover on downs.

Andrew Cyr can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.

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