Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Maynard: Observations from UMass football’s 2024 spring game

Minutemen wrap up spring workouts outside at McGuirk
Kalina Kornacki
Daily Collegian (2023)

The Massachusetts football team competed in its spring game on Saturday, playing outside in front of fans at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. The Minutemen showcased their new-look team, with freshmen and transfers getting their first opportunity to see what a game-day environment in Amherst looks like.

The spring game wasn’t prototypical by any means, as the Minutemen went through individual workouts, a pair of 15-minute running time scrimmages, 7-on-7 and some situation-specific scenarios. The situations included second and six, third down, red zone and a two-minute drill at the end.

Even with ups and downs throughout the day and the spring in general, the team improved in many areas and looks to be set up to compete this fall.

“I think we’ve now turned the corner,” head coach Don Brown said. “We’ve done a good job of evaluating personnel, evaluating people and their personality and fitting them in with our team.”

The new transfers for UMass were on full display, showcasing their abilities to fill the roles of some of the team’s biggest producers from 2023.

Tulsa transfer Cookie Desiderio received almost all of the team’s action in the backfield due to a banged-up running back room. The redshirt freshman showed some flashes throughout his high usage, but for the most part was held in check. He did play all three downs, showcasing his pass-catching ability, while also breaking a couple of tackles on some shifty moves.

On the defensive side, Lake Ellis stood out at cornerback, playing physically and making plays on the ball throughout. The Bryant transfer locked up receivers all day and looks to slot in as a starting corner alongside Isaiah Rutherford. Ryan Barnes got work at corner as well, showcasing his 6-foot-2 frame and length to swat passes away from receivers regularly.

Brayden Rohme and Luke Painton slotted in at left and right tackle for the first-team unit on the offensive line, transferring in from Cal and Columbia, respectively. Their size up front was huge in both run blocking and pass protection, and it looks like both players will fill the gaps on the line left by graduation and outgoing transfers.

Taisun Phommachanh, the Minutemen’s 2023 starting quarterback, didn’t compete in the festivities, leaving a chance for the rest of the quarterback room to get more run. Coach Brown did mention that the redshirt senior could’ve suited up, but the team chose to let him rest after working through a long-term injury in his first season in the maroon and white.

Ahmad Haston suited up with the first unit at quarterback, and showed flashes along with some inconsistencies. The redshirt freshman was especially efficient on the ground, taking a read option roughly 45 yards for a touchdown early in the day.

Haston made three appearances in 2023, and showed more comfort in the pocket and behind the line of scrimmage in the spring game. One of his throws was perfectly layered over a group of linebackers and fell right into a receiver’s hands. He did spike a few throws low in the turf and threw one ball over the middle that was almost picked off, but his big play ability and growing confidence are positive signs for the coaching staff.

Ryan Jankowski was the next man to get under center, and the redshirt junior struggled to avoid pressure and get rid of the ball quickly at times. The Akron transfer also underthrew a couple of open targets, but did spruce in some good throws over the middle and showed slight mobility with the ball in his hands.

AJ Hairston had a solid day, making a few plays that would make you forget he’s a true freshman. In 7-on-7’s, Hairston threw a beautiful back-shoulder ball to Shane Robles, who made a phenomenal catch by the back left pylon. Hairston worked the pocket on three different third downs for big plays, changing his arm angle to get the ball around a defender.

UMass is going to need its veteran leaders to step up into some bigger roles for the upcoming season, and many of its returning players stood out on Saturday. Te’Rai Powell and Tyler Martin headlined the defense, making plays against both the run and the pass.

On offense, the Minutemen bring back leading receiver Anthony Simpson as well as starting center and five-year UMass veteran Josh Atwood. Simpson continued what made him successful in 2023, producing a bunch of yards after catches. Atwood was an anchor up front, helping his teammates pick up blitzes and getting to the second level in the run game.

A portion of Saturday gave the Minutemen kickers some practice from different areas. While Vanderbilt transfer Jacob Lurie didn’t participate, Riley Moore, Bennett Abbe and Michael Cooper all struggled to knock the ball through the posts consistently,  casting some worry onto the kicking unit.

UMass now truly begins its offseason, with players and coaches getting a break to reset in time for their return in the summer. The Minutemen look to get off on the right foot to start 2024, with their first game coming on August 31 at home against Eastern Michigan.

“Through 14 practices, I think it’s, if not the best, one of the best 14 practices of any group I’ve had in [the] spring,” Brown said.

Mike Maynard can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter/X @mikecmaynard.

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