An update from the first week of UMass football practice

How the team is progressing so far

Collegian+File+Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

No games have been officially scheduled for the Massachusetts football team so far this season. But with the intent to play as early as mid-October, UMass has begun a pseudo fall camp in practice.

“I think the most interesting thing about our preparation right now is that it’s fall camp’s amount of preparation within the confines of a 20-hour work week within NCAA rules,” head coach Walt Bell said. “You’re really crunched for time, you’re really crunched for reps. But we have a lot of work to do and a small amount of time to do it in.”

Under the time constraints, the Minutemen have been honing in on the fundamentals of the game such as blocking and tackling. These were main areas of focus during practices last fall, and with a largely developing roster, it is not a surprise that the team is maintaining its sights on the basics. Bell admitted the team is far from where it wants to be.

“The things we’re doing, you can’t skip no matter if you have an old team or a young team,” Bell said. “I think the biggest emphasis since we are such a young group is just football fundamentals, Football 101.”

“In terms of anything last year, I think we all know the answer: we weren’t very good last year,” continued Bell. “We’ve got to be much better. Every team in the country needs to learn how to block and tackle, so that’s where we are right now.”

So far, there has been a lot of management of player reps to make the team game ready but also ensure practice is safely ramped up to full speed. For the players, the adjustment from low-energy skills practices to full-pads was unusual but welcomed.

“After the first two practices, I felt like I just went through an eight-game season,” linebacker Cole McCubbrey said. “I was really sore, but we are just about a week in and I feel great. I think we could play in a week for sure.”

“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” added linebacker Mike Ruane about physicality. “You never really lose it unless you haven’t done it in a while, but once you come back to it you can do it. I think we just need another week and we will be ready to play.”

As for roster competitions, Bell left the door wide open as to who would start. The only players he admitted to having locked in starting jobs are left tackle Larnel Coleman and long-snapper Evan Deckers. Though quarterback Andrew Brito has the most starting experience after he took over the starting job over from Randall West last season, Bell would not confirm if he would start the season at quarterback this year. A part of his reasoning is likely to make each player on the team work harder to earn their jobs.

In the weight room, the Minutemen have been focusing on building mass. Often last season, UMass looked undersized compared to its competition, particularly on the offensive and defensive fronts. To remedy that, Bell says the team has gained 690 pounds across 60 scholarship players, with some players gaining upwards of 30 and 40 pounds since early July. Incoming freshmen Viczaril Alobwede and Nahji Logan are two players that have built up the most.

“That’s one huge advantage to having the No. 1 dining in the country,” said Bell. “We’ve grown.”

Developing his recruiting classes will be a major key for Bell toward building a successful UMass football program. Bell thinks the team is still two to three years of recruiting away from filling all 80 scholarship spots, but he has enjoyed what he has seen from his first recruiting class so far. One player he praised highly was freshman defensive back Te’Rai Powell.

“Based off what I’ve seen in six practices, I think Te’Rai Powell is going to be really, really special,” Bell said. “In multiple spots, safety, as a nickel corner, as a kick returner. He’s had a really good six days of practice.”

Other players Bell gave a lot of credit to for performing well early in camp are Cody Jones and Tristan Armstrong. Notably, all three players Bell credited are defensive backs. Though the secondary wasn’t the main struggle of the UMass defensive woes last season—when compared to the difficulties of the defensive front—a corps of promising young secondary players could prove useful in replacing some of Isaiah Rodgers defensive production.

Overall, Bell noted a different feel to practice this season. Without much depth last year, the Minutemen were unable to do much scrimmaging or physical drills. A deeper roster pool is providing them that luxury this season.

“I think the biggest difference is the level of physicality is so much different,” Bell said. “Just how much bigger, how much stronger, how much more durable. Practice actually sounds like a practice now. To me, that’s the most exciting thing compared to a year ago.”

Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TheDanMcGee.