Sports Staff Chats: UMass football’s return

The sports staff discusses the strange upcoming season

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Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian

By Collegian Sports Staff

With the Massachusetts football team deciding to switch gears and play football in 2020, the Collegian sports staff decided to have a discussion about the upcoming season. We asked the writers on the football beat some question about UMass football, here’s what they had to say:

Is playing football this season a good idea?

Noah Bortle: I’m of the opinion that playing sports outside of a bubble right now is not the best idea. Yes, COVID numbers are down from their peak and Massachusetts has been very successful in implementing its protocols, but to me it’s creating an unnecessary risk of community spread. That being said, the Minutemen have been one of the safest teams in the country by most measures and seemingly won’t be creating the same risk that teams in, say, the SEC are. Since all other conferences also reversed their decisions to play in the spring, this was probably the lone opportunity to play football in Amherst this year.

Kevin Schuster: I believe that playing a more condensed season rather than none at all is actually a good idea. Since UMass has done a very good job at keeping kids safe throughout the pandemic, I think as long as they continue or even up their protocols once the season starts, then they should let the team play. However, I also think they need to be conscious of who they play and how they can manage traveling safely. If they keep all of those things in check, then I think it would be good for the team and its players to have a fall season.

Dan McGee: From a COVID standpoint, probably not. Even with great case numbers within the program and the University, traveling presents too many uncontrollable variables that could cause an outbreak to occur. From a football standpoint, it’s a good idea since the opportunities to play in the spring were drying up according to Athletic Director Ryan Bamford. This is a team that needs experience on the field, and the decision to play even a few games gives them that.

Joey Aliberti: I really don’t know if I can say confidently that it is a good idea or not. This is something we will only find out in due time. Obviously, the players and coaches want to play because they are passionate, but there is a very logical reason for why they shouldn’t. At the same time, with all the safety precautions Ryan Bamford and UMass have taken, I don’t think they would’ve made the decision to resume play after postponing if they did not think it was safe enough.

How many games will they play this fall?

Noah: To me, this is entirely dependent on what happens around the rest of the country. UMass will likely play as a fill-in team when another squad can’t play due to an outbreak. For the Minutemen’s sake, I’ll peg my guess at five games — right with the upper limit Ryan Bamford said the team would play.

Kevin: Looking at the rest of the country right now, college football has done better than most expected in regard to keeping COVID numbers low. Since Massachusetts has been doing a very good job testing and has a relatively low number of cases, I think the chances of COVID impacting UMass’ season compared to the likes of an SEC program, is very low. With that being said I think UMass can manage to fit in at least five games this fall if given the opportunity.

Dan: I’d guess five. If they start playing by mid-October, and even alternate playing every other week for COVID reasons, they can finish before Christmas. I don’t necessarily think they will do this, but it’s a possibility that Bamford didn’t rule out.

Joey: Bamford maxed the number out at six, but I think it’s more likely that only four to five games are played. It seems like such a tough task to schedule so many games when a lot of teams have already started playing and have a schedule set.

Who should start at quarterback?

Noah: Andrew Brito. Not only is the redshirt junior returning with by far the most experience in the quarterback room, but Brito was probably UMass’ best quarterback a season ago. With another offseason under his belt, I expect an improved Brito at the helm of the Minutemen offense in 2020.

Kevin: Based on experience I’d have to go with Andrew Brito. However, I think with a condensed season this gives head coach Walt Bell an opportunity to try out new recruits to give them in game experience in hopes of a full season in 2021. I’m interested to see how freshman Will Koch performs in training. With a strong running game already, I think UMass could use a 6-foot-3-inch pro-style quarterback to help its receiving corps.

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Dan: At the beginning of the season, probably Andrew Brito since he has the most game experience by far of any of the quarterbacks. Mike Fallon will probably see some game time at some point too, though he has only appeared in one game throughout his UMass career, subbing in for an injured Michael Curtis in last year’s win over Akron. He looked promising in his short stint on the field going 2/2 for 40 yards, but that is far from a large sample size. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see at least one of the freshman quarterbacks play a little bit, as the quarterback carousel was in full effect last season for Walt Bell’s offense. At this point though, it’s Brito’s job to lose.

Joey: It’d be a surprise to not see Brito start the year as the quarterback, but I think it would be much more surprising if either Zamar Wise, Luke McMenamin, Garrett Dzuro or Will Koch did not see any playing time. Walt Bell knows this team is developmental and years away from where they want to be, so it would be logical to let one of the three freshman quarterbacks take a crack at the starting role.

What will be UMass’ biggest strength?

Noah: For me, UMass’ bread and butter will be in the running game. Last year, the team averaged a tick over 120 rushing yards a game and I think they’ll build on that this year. With Bilal Ally transferring, it opens a door for Cam Roberson to take command of the backfield. UMass should lean heavily on their backs who found success last year out of Walt Bell’s spread sets.

Kevin: Last season UMass relied heavily on their running game for its offensive production and I see that continuing this season. With eight different backs running the ball last year, I think with their depth and experience, the Minutemen will continue to utilize rushing as their primary focus on offense while they tune up their passing game.

Dan: I’m going to say the linebacker corps. Cole McCubbrey and Mike Ruane led the team in tackles last year and will return for their senior seasons. The promotion of linebacker’s coach Tommy Restivo to defensive coordinator this year should give the two some increased confidence on the field. With another year of experience under their belts, McCubbrey and Ruane could prove vital to the success of the UMass defense.

Joey: It’s tough to deny the fact that there are four players coming back on this defense with over 20 tackles and they all happen to be linebackers. In a team that is also known for its lack of experience, the linebacker group’s top-five guys are all juniors and seniors.

Their biggest weakness?

Noah: The defense is still a concern for me. Coming off one the worst defensive seasons in FBS history, I don’t see it getting much better. While the team lost Isaiah Rodgers on the back end, expect improvement from the front seven. The group was young and thin in 2019 but got a lot of valuable playing time under its belt and should take a step forward.

Kevin: When you look at the games where the Minutemen really struggled, it was because they couldn’t stop the run. By the end of the season, UMass gave up 400 more rushing yards than passing yards. As long as the secondary is doing its job, I think the Minutemen should focus heavily on improving their defensive line.

Dan: The offensive and defensive lines are tied for me as the biggest weaknesses. Walt Bell has admitted to the lack of depth the team has in both spots, and they haven’t been able to recruit enough to really provide a deeper player pool in either area. Bell has said that a few incoming freshmen such as Viczaril Alobwede have put on a lot of weight to prepare for the season, but that won’t be enough to stop their defensive woes. On the offensive side of the ball, the only locked-in starter is Larnel Coleman who could provide some consistency at left tackle, but beyond that expect a revolving door of offensive linemen this season.

Joey: Like Dan said, Walt knew after last season the o-line and d-line were where they needed the most improvement, but I’m going to give this one to the defensive line. I get that a team like Army is a run heavy team, but when they average about 300 rushing yards a game and UMass allowed them to run for 500, that’s just not something that can be acceptable.

Who’s your pick to have a breakout season?

Noah: Though I picked the running backs to be the team’s biggest strength, I think that its biggest breakout will be in the passing game. OC Johnson was UMass’ best receiver in 2019, hauling in 37 catches for 272 yards. If Johnson can capitalize on some of the home-run-play chances that he couldn’t last year, he could be dangerous for defenses to stop.

Kevin: Since Ally entered the transfer portal, I think we’re going to see a lot more of Cam Roberson. I think UMass will continue to be run heavy while it’s shaping up its passing game which will give Roberson more reps than last season. I think UMass will also utilize its depth at the running back position which will keep Roberson fresh to close out tough games.

Eva Trainer/Daily Collegian

Dan: I agree with Kevin on this one, I think Cam Roberson has a big opportunity to break out this year. I expect the versatile Roberson to get increased snaps this season. He had some explosive games last season, tallying 7.3 yards per carry against Charlotte and 4.9 against Liberty. He also caught 16 passes on the year. Modeling his game around Christian McCaffrey as he told me last season, I think he has a high ceiling to breakout this year.

Joey: I asked Isaiah Rodgers back in April who he thought was next in line to follow the lead of Andy Isabella and himself as star UMass players who eventually got drafted, and he listed OC Johnson. That along with the fact he led UMass in receptions as a freshman last year says enough for me.

What will be the biggest improvement?

Noah: It may come as a surprise, but I think that the Minutemen’s defense against the run is going to take the biggest leap in 2020. Not only did UMass give up the most yards on the ground in the nation, but they gave up 50 rushing touchdowns. The achilles heel of the defense was big plays on the ground. As I mentioned, I think the front seven gets a lot better this year. With more players rotating in and players building on the experience of last year, the d-line and linebackers will be better in 2020.

Kevin: One of the biggest improvements I see UMass making is limiting its penalties. With 83 penalties for 764 yards last season, the Minutemen kept digging themselves into unnecessary holes on both sides of the ball. This is one of the easier problems to fix but a big one if UMass hopes to see progress in its offense.

Dan: The biggest improvement must come in the fundamentals of the game. Blocking and tackling were major issues for UMass last season. They were limited in the running game due to poor blocking, and often gave up big yardage on plays defensively due to poor tackling techniques. If the Minutemen want to take a step in the right direction, they’ll shore up these two incredibly important areas. I’m expecting last year’s yards per carry of 3.5 to increase, and average yards per play against UMass to decrease from last year’s average of 7.8.

Joey: My money is on the offensive line being the biggest improvement for this season. Preseason Outland Trophy (best offensive lineman) candidate Larnel Coleman is locked into the left tackle spot, along with the addition of six new recruits from this year’s class. Bell said that he wanted to improve the offensive line in this class, and I think we will see an improvement after a rough year last year.

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