McCarthy: What to expect from UMass football week one and beyond

Mystery quarterback, defense ready to improve and more

Sophie-Zoe+Schreyer%2F+Daily+Collegian

Sophie-Zoe Schreyer/ Daily Collegian

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

On Saturday, the Don Brown era of Massachusetts football begins again.

The Minutemen will travel to New Orleans for their season opener at Tulane and showcase what they are capable of in 2022. The excitement around the Minutemen is understandably high following Brown’s return to Amherst, but the expectations for success remain relatively low.

UMass is still widely regarded as one of the worst teams in FBS, so this season may not be as much about the Minutemen’s win total as it will be about taking steps forward as a program. With that being said, here’s what you need to know about UMass before they take the field on Saturday night:

Who will be QB1?

By far the biggest question for the Minutemen this season was who would line up under center. The answer? Well, Brown knows it, but we don’t.

The truth is that UMass does have more than one capable option. During training camp, it seemed as though Brady Olson, Gino Campiotti and Zamar Wise all had a chance to be the No. 1 guy. So, whoever does get the job will have battled through stiff competition to earn it.

“I’ve been a part of quarterback competitions a handful of times … there’s really only two types, there’s one quarterback competition because you don’t have a quarterback,” UMass offensive coordinator Steve Casula said during preseason camp on August 18. “This is the complete other end of the spectrum.”

“We got a handful of guys, and not just the three that everyone talks about … they all can play.”

My gut tells me it’ll be Olson taking the first snap of the season based on what I’ve seen out of him at camp. He’s shown improvements across the board from year one to year two. His confidence in particular is clear; Olson commands the offense well every time he steps on the field. He’s decisive, poised in the pocket and his accuracy throughout the fall camp was unmatched. Not only that, but he’s been showcasing his legs more than ever. This is a much improved Olson from the one that had an up-and-down freshman season.

Even though I believe Olson will be first in line, I wouldn’t be too shocked if Campiotti won the starting role either; he seems like the Minutemen’s most versatile option under center. Gino wasn’t quite as good of a passer as Olson throughout camp, and he wasn’t as skilled of a runner as Wise. But as a dual threat, he combines the two perfectly.

Campiotti also has a lot of confidence and his mobility in the pocket stands out to me. But, even if he doesn’t play quarterback a ton, he could become another gadget-type player for the Minutemen. He has experience playing tight end in college as well as quarterback, and his athleticism is apparent.

Zamar Wise showed similar capabilities to Campiotti as a dual threat option throughout camp. In 2021, Wise was used primarily as a wildcat quarterback, taking snaps for designed QB runs and read options. But in the offseason, he developed as a passer and turned heads with perfectly placed deep balls during live tackling periods of practice. It seems like he might be the third option, but I’d still be surprised if he didn’t get some solid playing time in a specialized role.

No matter who starts against Tulane, though, the quarterback position will likely evolve throughout the year. Brown said he’s open to deploying more than one quarterback situationally, and there’s no guarantee that whoever starts week one will keep that job for the entire season.

How soon will the defense improve?

Don Brown is one of the better defensive minds in college football and I have no doubt that he’ll have the defense in much better shape this season than it was under Walt Bell. But what amount of improvement should we expect right away given that Brown is still in year one?

One thing that jumps out to me is tackling. Brown was meticulous in camp about the way the Minutemen practiced form tackling in drills and it was one of the top things he kept an eye on during live 11-on-11 periods. Following their last practice with media-availability, Brown said there wasn’t a single missed tackle when UMass went live. Cleaning up the tackling would be a major improvement for a defense that really struggled to bring ball carriers to the ground a season ago.

The defensive back group should also take a large leap forward over the course of the season. Brown has his hands all over that unit and is known for getting safeties and cornerbacks drafted into the NFL under his tutelage. I’m not suggesting that Brown will magically create another Isaiah Rodgers Sr. this year, but the group as a whole will be sounder than it has been lately.

Still, I think the Minutemen will struggle defensively early on in the season, in part because of the tough opponents on the horizon, and also because as the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. UMass gave up an average of about 43 points per game to its opponents last season and the only team it allowed less than 30 points to was UConn. If the Minutemen can get that average down to between 30 and 35 points per game, I’d view that as a solid step forward.

Reasonable expectations for success

At the end of the day, I think UMass is a two or three win team in 2022. I think expecting more than that, while optimistic, isn’t necessarily a realistic goal.

Of course, the Minutemen need to be taking steps forward. They won one game last season and its pretty critical that they achieve a bit more than that this year. Their quarterback situation is better, they have proven guys like Ellis Merriweather who can make a big difference on the field, and the defense should improve. When you combine that with the major improvement at head coach, I honestly think a one-win season would be a disappointment.

With that being said, it’s not time to shoot for the stars in terms of the win total. What is far more important is that the product on the field is improved, because that would showcase a better idea of UMass’ potential.

Brown has done a great job setting up his recruitment pipeline in a very short time in Amherst. He’s likely going to need some time to get his guys into the building before the Minutemen’s win total can truly spike. For now, Brown and company need to focus on building the foundation for that future success.

They’ll lay the first brick of that foundation on Saturday night at 7 p.m. against Tulane.

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.