After rough start to the season, young offensive line starting to settle in for UMass football

Tackles Coleman and Abosi the only ones to start all six games

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After rough start to the season, young offensive line starting to settle in for UMass football

Nina Walat

Nina Walat

Nina Walat

By Thomas Haines, Sports Editor

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Coming into the season, there were questions all over the roster for the Massachusetts football team. The receivers were unproven, the two top quarterbacks had graduated and the defense looked seriously talent-deficient.

Six weeks in, most of those questions have been answered, and none favorably for the Minutemen. The defense has struggled mightily, the Minutemen (1-5) still haven’t found a quarterback and none of the receivers have established themselves. One of the few remaining questions for UMass is whether the offensive line can find its footing.

Like most of the team, the line is young and inexperienced. Of the current starters, Mike Yerardi and Larnel Coleman are the only ones to have more than four games under their belts at UMass before this year.

“I feel like we’ve gotten a lot better, because a lot of the young guys especially are just gaining experience, game by game by game,” Coleman said. “We’ve been seeing it on film, they’ve been using the little tips and tricks that we’ve been teaching them in the game. They’ve definitely been improving week by week, just getting experience under them.”

Only Coleman and Brian Abosi, a redshirt freshman, have started the entire year. Around them, sophomore Dalton Tomlison took over at center after three weeks when Jaylen Larry got injured, and true freshman Helber Fagundes stepped in at left guard after senior Ray Thomas-Ishman got suspended late September.

“Definitely their confidence level, I feel like at first it wasn’t really high,” Coleman said of the new starters. “They weren’t really confident in themselves because they didn’t know what to expect. Everything was so new to them.”

After several extremely rough games at the start of the year, the line seemed to be improving before another awful showing against Florida International last week, where the Minutemen gained all of 115 yards of offense. On the ground, where UMass had been averaging just under four yards per carry going in, the Minutemen managed just 38 yards on 24 carries.

For whatever improvements have been made, UMass still can’t move the ball. The limitations of the roster make it difficult to get past that, as an already-thin team has seen injuries and departures reduce its depth.

“With where we are, it’s hard to be super physical [in practice], tackling to the ground and some of those things,” coach Walt Bell said. “The last few days, if nothing else, just intent. I think our intent and approach to improve is good. As long as we can do that over the long haul, we’ll be okay.”

Despite the poor showing against FIU, the running game has been one area that’s had some flashes of potential. Senior Bilal Ally is averaging five yards per carry, while junior Cam Roberson has had moments of impressive burst and explosiveness, including a 39-yard touchdown run against Rutgers.

“It’s very helpful to have them back there,” Coleman said. “They also love getting into blocks too, saving our skin a couple times.”

This week the Minutemen come up against Louisiana Tech, which has won its last four games and beat FIU by two scores three weeks ago. For UMass to have hope, the offense has to find a rhythm, starting with the five up front. The line has to give whoever starts at quarterback time to throw and the receivers time to get open, as the Minutemen look to get something – anything – going through the air.

More important, however, will be after UMass comes back from its bye next week, when it’ll have five more games for those incremental improvements to start adding up on the field. Coleman and Bell both believe that time is coming, as the young starters settle in and start turning the intangible gains into tangible ones. But for now, they’re emphasizing the small steps those guys have already taken.

“They come out with a little more swagger and everything after practice, because they know that previously we had a good game and whatnot,” Coleman said. “Now it’s ‘Okay, now it’s just blocking this dude, I know I can do this now.’ Having a little more self-confidence.”

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @thainessports.