UMass looks to improve on disappointing 2019 in an uncertain 2020

The focus will be on the basics with little time to prepare

Nina+Walat%2FDaily+Collegian

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Joseph Aliberti, Assistant Sports Editor

Less than a month ago, the Massachusetts football team had no fall season, as Athletic Director Ryan Bamford postponed the season until the spring semester. The decision has since been reversed, and UMass will now face its first opponent this weekend with only 14 practices under its belt.

Along with the multitude of problems that come with handling COVID-19, the Minutemen are coming off a forgetful 1-11 season with its only win coming against fellow college-football basement dweller Akron. UMass has finished 1-11 three times since 2012, when they made the move up from the FCS.

The Minutemen lacked size and depth all around the roster and it showed, as they allowed over 52 points per game and around 560 yards a game to their opponents. Of those yards, 300 came on the ground as the maroon and white struggled to slow opposing rushing attacks. The offense was not built to keep up with the defense’s woes, only averaging 19.8 points and 293 yards per game.

Without a lot of practice time and with one of the youngest teams in the nation, head coach Walt Bell and his staff have their work cut out for them. The staff is allotted a 20-hour work week with its players for three weeks of simplified preparation for its first game this weekend.

“Football fundamentals; blocking, tackling and the physicality required and the callus required to sustain the game of football,” Bell said. “Some limited and reduced scheme, but really just football fundamentals.”

Coming into this season, the UMass offense loses its passing, rushing and receiving yard leaders, but have an offense that Bell feels much better about. The primary reason being the growth in strength and depth from last year.

“It’s just a completely different group physically and it’s a completely different group from a recruiting standpoint,” Bell said. “It’s really a different team. Obviously one that looks much more like the vision that we had for our group.”

The difference from this year’s team to last year starts in the trenches on the offensive and defensive line.

Larnel Coleman, a preseason candidate for the Outland Trophy—given to college football’s best interior lineman—and the anchor for the offensive line at left tackle, has gained 15 pounds from last season, making him 6-foot-7, 315 pounds. Brian Abosi, who started at right tackle last year and will do the same this year, gained 35 pounds, putting him at 6-foot-8, 335 pounds heading into this season.

The defensive line for the Minutemen will be bulkier as well, now having both its nose tackle and defensive tackle weigh over 300 pounds this year, a luxury they did not have last year.

“It just looks different out there playing at linebacker,” Cole McCubrey said. “Whether it’s going up against the offensive line or it’s the defensive line picking up a double team, we definitely have some size and strength up front.”

UMass lost two of its three quarterbacks with the most playing experience last year in Randall West and Michael Curtis. The third quarterback from that group, Andrew Brito, isn’t listed on the depth chart. All three quarterbacks struggled last season, as Brito was the only quarterback with a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio at 7-6.

The new depth chart for quarterback includes redshirt senior Mike Fallon, redshirt sophomore Josiah Johnson and true freshman Will Koch.

“The biggest thing with Fallon is that we’ve only had 14 days to prepare. He’s just an older veteran guy that’s been around and can operate the line of scrimmage,” Bell said. “Obviously Josiah is a big, great athlete, has really improved as a quarterback knowing its only his second year in the system. Then Will Koch is a great athlete and can really run. He’s still developing as a quarterback simply because there was no spring practice and he wasn’t an early enrollee.”

Bell can either focus more on the present with Fallon, who appears the most developed and comfortable with this system or lean on one of the high upside options in Johnson or Koch. Johnson seems to have the most intriguing case out of the three, seeing as he would be the top returning tight end to UMass’ roster. The Minutemen also did not bring in any tight ends that are going to start right away.

“I think for me, I’m just excited to see him get in the game and see how he operates,” Bell said.

The lack of veteran experience of this team showed itself in who was voted captains. Other than Coleman and last year’s leader in tackles in McCubrey, who are both seniors, Sam Emilus, Ellis Merriweather and Josh Wallace make up the captains. Emilus is a junior wide receiver, while redshirt junior Merriweather has been on campus since January. Wallace is a true sophomore who will start at cornerback.

Even though Merriweather has been on campus for less than a year, his coaches and teammates felt he was deserving of a captain spot.

“Just one of the most resilient and tenacious workers in our program. He’s so invested in everything that it takes to be a good football player and that’s on and off the field,” Bell said. “To be a guy that’s been here [since January] and be elected captain you got to create some noise.”

Wallace had to adjust to a leadership role quicker than he expected, being the Minutemen’s most experienced cornerback on the team as a sophomore in the post-Isaiah Rodgers era.

“Josh was a freshman last year that displayed an unbelievable amount of maturity. He started every game except one, played well before he was ready and self-admittedly probably didn’t play very well because he wasn’t ready,” Bell said. “He kept a positive attitude, is one of the hardest workers on our team and handles his academics. He’s just a first-class person on and off the field.”

Only starting his coaching tenure at UMass with 56 scholarship athletes, when most Division I colleges have around 80 is something that requires patience. His recruiting class this year consisted of the maximum 25 signees and included 21 three-star athletes, according to 247sports.com.  

Bell has talked about needing multiple recruiting classes like this past one before he will have a full team and people will have a clear view of the vision Bell came in with almost two years ago.

“The vision of what we want this program to be is a very large, very long, very blue collar, run heavy and physical football team,” Bell said. “A team that can run the football and stop the run and win games in November in the elements when you have to win games to go to the first bowl game in the history of the school.”

With only one game officially under the schedule for UMass, there is nothing but speculation surrounding who future opponents will be and when games will take place, something Bell looks past in a season where nothing is guaranteed.

“We’ll play anybody, anytime anywhere,” Bell said. “Just having the opportunity to be back and play football games, I could care less who we play.”

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