UMass football looks to hit the ground running

By Andrew Cyr

Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

To say the Massachusetts football team has a pass-friendly offense would be an understatement.

UMass coach Mark Whipple has a storied background in the offensive game where he was the offensive coordinator for Miami and has had stints as a quarterback coach with the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers serving as a mentor to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Add quarterback Blake Frohnapfel and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe – statistically one of the best receivers in the country – and it’s no surprise UMass (1-5, 0-2 Mid-American Conference) has run passing plays on 63 percent of its offensive snaps this season.

But last Saturday in the Minutemen’s 15-10 loss against Kent State, the lone touchdown drive came with UMass primarily running the football, finished off with a five-yard run from Jamal Wilson.

As a team, the Minutemen have accounted for a total of 588 rushing yards, the fourth fewest in all of college football. They have eclipsed the 100-yard mark in just three games so far, with the worst performances coming against Temple (45 rushing yards) and Bowling Green (30).

“I thought we did some good things in the run game in the first half (against Kent State), I probably should have stayed with it more,” Whipple said.

One of the biggest factors on that drive was when Whipple lined up both tackles on one side of the formation. Between Tyrell Smith, Elijah Wilkinson and Tyshon Henderson, the three have been rotating in at tackle with multiple formations involving two of the three located on the strong side of the formation.

“We’ve practiced it a lot so we feel really comfortable together,” Smith said of the unbalanced formations. “Every other series or so, we’ve been switching so we are kind of used to it now. We’ve been doing it for a while now so it’s instilled in us. Me personally, I’m really comfortable blocking next to both of them.”

“They’re all playing well, we saw in camp that Tyshon had made a big jump and felt like with 12 straight games and with the heat early in the season, we just kept rotating them,” Whipple said. “Keeping them healthy is key.”

So far this season Whipple had balanced the snaps of his running backs, primarily using the trio of Wilson, Marquis Young and Sekai Lindsay. Both Wilson and Young lead the team with 35 carries with Lindsay following close behind with 29 of his own. Young leads the team with 291 rushing yards while Wilson’s three rushing touchdowns are tops in that category.

Young’s breakthrough game came against Notre Dame when the freshman broke open an 83-yard touchdown run in his 103-yard performance on the day. Wilson’s three touchdown came in three separate games against Colorado, the Fighting Irish and the Golden Flashes.

Smith said there wasn’t a huge difference of blocking in front of the different running backs, but he mentioned it was the little things that the lineman have to adjust to.

“There’s no big difference, but when you know Marquis is back there we really have to get up to the second level fast because when Marquis gets the ball he flies,” Smith said. “Jamal is really patient, he reads the blocks well and then he really gets it going.”

The team’s two leading rushers from last year, Shadrach Abrokwah and Lorenzo Woodley, have seen their roles reduced with the additions of Young and Lindsay and with Wilson healthy after he missed the final nine games of 2014 with a leg injury.

Abrokwah, who led UMass in yards (578) and touchdowns (seven) in 2014, has only nine carries for 58 yards, all of which came in the season opener against the Buffaloes. Woodley has 10 carries for 36 yards on the season.

Young commented on the Minutemen’s ability to rotate in different running backs and said that it’s been huge in his transition as a freshman into college football.

“Playing as a running back, you’re always going to get bumps and bruises, so for you to have help out there on the field, it builds you mentally and prepares your body to get a little bit of rest,” Young said. “For us to have a good rotation with a good usage of back it feels good.”


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