Position competitions tighten up with another week of practice in the books

Leadership will come from old and young

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Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Joseph Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

With its first game now scheduled, the Massachusetts football team has to figure out what players will be seeing the most opportunities to start the season 

There’s positions where we got to find out who that guy is going to be, there’s certain positions where we got to find out who the next guy is going to be,head coach Walt Bell said. “It really is position grouptoposition group.”  

Bell detailed how most positions need to be solidified in figuring out who will be the next man up after the starters, and saying he, “feels pretty good” about the tight end position and the running back rotation.  

One of the running backs in that rotation, redshirt sophomore Ellis Merriweather has been one to catch the eye of the Minutemen coaches. A JUCO transfer from Garden City Community College, Merriweather had 159 carries for 840 yards and eight touchdowns in his past two years at Garden City. 

“He’s 6foot2.5 inches, he’s 230 pounds, he’s the second fastest offensive skill player we have and he’s really physical when he runs the football,” Bell said. “People are not fond of tackling him.”  

The leading receiver at the tight end position from last season is redshirt-sophomore Josiah Johnson, who had 12 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns last year. Though he was the position’s leading pass catcher, Bell is using him elsewhere.  

He’s done a great job at quarterback so far,” Bell said. “It’ll be interesting to see how that ends up.” 

Johnson, who is 6foot-5 inches tall and 210 pounds, will likely be the biggest threat to 5foot8-inch 170-pound redshirt junior Andrew Brito. Brito is one of two quarterbacks that had game experience for the Minutemen last season, the other being redshirt senior Mike Fallon, who only had two pass attempts.  

Brito had a 54.7 completion percentage, throwing for 830 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions in a season in which UMass never saw consistent production at the quarterback position. Not all blame rests on the quarterbacks however, especially when the offensive line had struggles of its own to compound other issues.  

“Last year I was playing on an ACL tear that I had just [recovered from],” Brito said. “Now it’s been two years since the ACL tear and I finally feel like I have a right knee again. I’m able to just move around the way I want to again, the way I was able to at JUCO. I really feel good again.” 

Larnel Coleman, a preseason Outland Trophy watchlist member, was a reliable piece for a struggling offensive line last season, but now can rely on the help of newcomers and redshirts from last season, after having to play with only five healthy lineman at times last year.  

“Just knowing you have a backup is definitely comforting,” Coleman said. Actually having that depth now makes it start to feel like a real team.” 

With Isaiah Rodgers being drafted by the Colts this spring, a lot of opportunities open up for the secondary of this Minuteman defense. The cornerback with the most experience for UMass is sophomore Josh Wallace, who started in eight of the 12 games last season. 

“I’m trying to take on that leadership role that [Rodgers] took last year,” Wallace said. “Personally, I think it’s weird and something I had to get adjusted to it really quick.” 

Noah Boykin, a redshirt sophomore is an incoming transfer from Notre Dame where he did not see much playing time, but came out of high school ranked as the No. 21 ranked cornerback nationally by Rivals.com.  

“I think [Boykin] and [Wallace together] at corner together, with a young Tristan Armstrong,” Bell said. “I think those three have a chance to be really good moving forward.”  

Junior linebacker Xavier Steele announced that he will enter the transfer portal on Wednesday. Steele would have been fourth among returning UMass tacklers with 42, along with an interception.  

“We knew we were going to be young in the first place, so we’ll continue to be young with one less guy,” Bell said. “I have a lot of respect for Xavier and I’m excited to see what happens for him.” 

Now that Georgia Southern is on the schedule, Bell and his staff are making sure they are ready to play. This means continued focus on simplifying the focus of the team: blocking, tackling and fundamentals.  

Joey Aliberti can be reached via email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JosephAliberti1.