McGee: Where does UMass football go from here?

Minutemen went 0-4 this season

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

Another Massachusetts football season has come and gone, granted this one looked a bit different than years past. In its shortened season UMass (0-4) showed they are still a major project requiring a lot of development to become a competitive football team. In their winless season however, the Minutemen did show some glimmers of hope.

First, the offense needs to find some identity.

Walt Bell has preached time and time again that he wants to become a blue-collar, run the ball down your throat sort of football team. In its current state, the UMass football team does not resemble that. Lead back Ellis Merriweather was unable to do much this season, totaling just 115 yards on the ground. However, I would not attribute the failure to run the ball to Merriweather as much as I would to the struggles of the offensive line and the stout defenses that the Minutemen faced.

Marshall currently ranks first in rushing defense and Georgia Southern ranks ninth. Overall, the four opponents UMass faced rank in the top 25 of FBS defenses. The hope for the Minutemen is that their tough schedule hardened the inexperienced offense, making them well prepared to take on lesser opponents in the future. Still, despite the difficulty of the schedule, UMass needs to make major strides on offense if they want to improve.

The Minutemen replaced offensive line coach Jim Jackson after their first game against Georgia Southern, promoting assistant Micah James to the position. Though major improvements didn’t occur after the coaching change, the move signals a philosophy shift that UMass hopes will have long term benefits. After all, the Minutemen have some experienced talent on the offensive line in Larnel Coleman and Dalton Tomlinson, though two decent players mean nothing when the unit cannot function effectively. Moving away from the dual-offensive line coach structure should provide some more consistency moving forward, and if UMass wants to become the hard-nosed team Bell says they want to be, consistency will be needed.

At the quarterback position, consistency was nowhere to be found for UMass in 2020.

The Minutemen started the year with redshirt senior Mike Fallon as the starter, shifting to true freshman Will Koch for two games before starting redshirt freshman Garrett Dzuro in the season finale. The trio combined for one passing touchdown, four interceptions and 422 yards. Tight end Josiah Johnson also received snaps at QB, throwing nine times for six completions, 39 yards and an interception.

Though it’s understandable that Bell wanted to give starting looks to each of his developing quarterbacks, the shortened season and lack of fall camp did not distinguish any player as the starter moving forward. The QB competition is still wide-open for UMass, and it should be heating up headed into the spring. Freshman Zamar Wise, who was training as a wide receiver this fall, announced he will focus on developing as a quarterback this spring, adding another competitor to the quarterback pool. With more time to analyze and work with the position group, the staff will look to find a long-term starter this spring.

Weapons-wise is probably where the Minutemen can feel most comfortable on offense, albeit the work is not done. OC Johnson has the speed to become a true threat if given more opportunities to shine as a wideout. Josiah Johnson made some impressive, contested catches when lined up at tight end. Samuel Emilus made the most of his number one wide receiver opportunities, leading the team in receiving yards with 168 despite the quarterback carousel. There is talent in the pass-catching group, though they’ll need to be given more opportunities to improve and prove themselves. And that starts with play calling.

Before the season finale against Liberty, I wrote on how the offense needs to improve especially from a play calling standpoint. Too many times this season UMass found themselves in third-and-long because of questionable play calls, whether it was running up the middle for no gain on second and 10 or being too cute with a trick play that didn’t work. This all culminates into the offense being able to find an identity and building an effective scheme, whether it be ground and pound like Bell says he wants or some other style of offense. Granted, Bell and offensive coordinator Angelo Mirando haven’t had the easiest job with their young roster, but it all stems from putting players in the right position to succeed.

The defensive side of the ball is where Minutemen fans should place most of their excitement. Despite its loss to Florida Atlantic, it was undoubtable that UMass put together its best defensive performance in years against the Owls, racking up six sacks and 14 tackles for loss. By the end of the season, the Minutemen seemed to largely settle into defensive coordinator Tommy Restivo’s defensive scheme.

Defensive captain Josh Wallace led the UMass secondary with lockdown coverage as the number one corner, forcing five pass breakups. Redshirt sophomore Uchenna Ezewike broke out with 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Avien Peah converted to the defensive side of the ball with ease, adding six tackles for loss. There are signs of light at each position group on the defensive side of the ball, highlighted by the secondary unit which impressed at times despite consisting entirely of underclassmen.

However, the Minutemen will lose some valuable playmakers on the defense. Redshirt seniors Jake Byczko and Mike Ruane decided to enter the transfer portal for their final year of eligibility, and I would expect more seniors on both sides of the ball to follow. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Larnel Coleman or Cole McCubrey be the next player to announce they are moving on from UMass, but that’s life in college football. Players transfer for better opportunities, to play for a better team or for more playing time every year, which is why recruiting is so important.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA has enacted a recruiting dead period through April 15, meaning coaches cannot travel to recruit players until then. However, the ruling does allow for virtual recruiting to some extent, so Bell and company will have to adjust to that new reality.

Without a doubt, signing a solid group of 25 recruits every year will be the biggest key to Bell successfully building a winning program in Amherst. So far, he has only had one full recruiting cycle and was able to add talented players like Te’Rai Powell and Viczaril Alobwede who have made an impact in their freshman seasons, combining for 36 tackles.

The timeline for the UMass football team to become a competitive program is still at least a few years away. But the work toward getting there happens now.

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