Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass football’s offensive line learns to adapt this spring

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(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

In football, there’s little glory or glamor to being an offensive lineman.

If a team is doing well, all fingers point to how great the skill position (quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end) players are doing, and if a team is struggling, the blame immediately turns to the offensive line for not blocking well enough.

But for any offensive line, the most important aspects of success come from consistency and communication, and the Massachusetts football team’s line is no different.

The Minutemen graduated center Matt Sparks and left tackle Tyrell Smith left the team after his redshirt junior season for undisclosed reasons after missing UMass’ final regular season game against Buffalo. Smith has since declared himself eligible for the 2016 NFL draft and worked out at the Minutemen’s Pro Day last month.

In addition to the two vacant spots in the two most important positions on the line, UMass is working this spring with a new offensive line coach in Mike Foley after Shane Waldron left the Minutemen staff to join the Washington Redskins.

“Everything’s been the same,” Elijah Wilkinson said of learning under Foley. “We are kind of coaching him up a little bit on what has been done, so he’s giving us his twist and we’re giving him our twist.”

“I’m fitting into the system, I only got here a couple days before we started so it’s learning on the run as far as that stuff is concerned,” Foley said. “The biggest thing I’ve tried to work with them is with their technique and trying to clean up that kind of stuff. We are trying to become more physical.”

Sliding into the center role this season is Fabian Hoeller, who started all 12 games in 2015 at guard and also served as the team’s de-facto backup when Sparks was out of the lineup.

“It’s kind of the same. The technique is a little bit different – how set on the pass set, the run block. But overall it’s a lot of the same. It’s more responsibility with making the calls – the fronts, the ‘mike’,” Hoeller said of the adjustment.

“So far it’s been petty good. I did that my first spring and my first summer with coach (Mark) Whipple here, so I know most of it. It took me about one or two days to get back into it,” Hoeller added.

In addition to Hoeller switching positions, Wilkinson will make the jump from right tackle to left tackle, protecting the right-handed quarterback Ross Comis’ blind side, after he started 11 games last year on the right side of the line.

UMass’ offensive line allowed 29 total sacks in 2015 while rushing for 1,707 yards on 392 attempts for 15 touchdowns. The Minutemen’s rushing attempts were the sixth fewest in the FBS.

Hoeller and Wilkinson each said one of the biggest learning curves they’ve faced this spring as been learning to pass protect for the Comis, a dual-threat quarterback who can extend and create plays with his feet. Last season, with Blake Frohanpfel under center, UMass didn’t have too many instances where Frohnapfel broke the pocket while making throws on the run.

“You never know where he’s at. He can be scrambling, he can be behind you, you just never know,” Wilkinson said. “I feel like we’ll get more in-sync as the spring goes on and as we go through summer camp and stuff like that. It will be good, but it’s different though.”

“You always have to be aware that Ross might break the pocket and just go somewhere,” Hoeller added. “You have to look to see where the defensive line and the linebackers are going to one of the sides instead of rushing straight.”

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

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