Posted: 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013
By Jimmy Kelley
The UMass Minutemen were an FCS powerhouse for years before making the jump to the FBS level in 2012, finishing with a 1-11 record in a season full of bumps and bruises. The 2013 season will be the next step on this journey for the proud program as Charley Molnar and his staff work to make the Minutemen a more competitive outfit in both their non-conference and MAC schedules.
Led by a senior class that still remembers how it feels to finish above .500 and a group of freshman who went through trial by fire in 2012, UMass should see some improvement on the field even if it doesn't necessarily correlate to more than two or three wins. The Minutemen will compete to the last play of every game, a quality instilled by their stable of experienced coaches, and that alone will lead to more competitive games and a more entertaining product on the field.
Mike Wegzyn was thrown into the drivers seat last season and performed well enough to secure his spot heading into spring ball and fall camp. Wegzyn looks noticeably bigger and is improving every day in both his grasp of the offense and his rapport with his receivers. A.J. Doyle is the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart and freshman Todd Stafford will be the third stringer.
Jordan Broadnax was the top choice at running back, but a training camp injury has sidelined him for the opener and the opportunity has been seized by Stacey Bedell. The redshirt freshman has been called the "home run hitter" of the group and brings more speed than Broadnax or true freshman Lorenzo Woodley, who will be the third-string back.
The receiving corps is led by team captain Rob Blanchflower at the tight end position who brings 43 catches back from last season and will be one of Wegzyn's safety nets in his second season at the helm. Tajae Sharpe and Bernard Davis have been the primary guys on the outside while Elgin Long, Shakur Nesmith and several other freshman compete for the third receiver spot in the Minutemen's spread attack.
New offensive coordinator John Bond brings some MAC experience from his time with Northern Illinois from 2004-06.
"I was in this league [with NIU] so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what a MAC defense looks like. Obviously we've got a long way to go and there's a lot of improvements to be made but I'm encouraged. We're a better football team than we were last fall."
|@ Wisconsin||Sat 08/31||11:00 AM CDT|
|Maine||Sat 09/07||1:00 PM CDT|
|@ Kansas St.||Sat 09/14||6:00 PM CDT|
|Vanderbilt||Sat 09/21||11:00 AM CDT|
|@ Bowling Green||Sat 10/05||2:30 PM CDT|
|Miami (Ohio)||Sat 10/12||2:00 PM CDT|
|@ Buffalo||Sat 10/19||2:30 PM CDT|
|Western Michigan||Sat 10/26||2:00 PM CDT|
|Northern Illinois||Sat 11/02||11:00 AM CDT|
|Akron||Sat 11/16||12:00 PM CST|
|@ Central Michigan||Sat 11/23||12:00 PM CST|
|@ Ohio||Fri 11/29||TBA|
The strength of the defense starts in the trenches where first-year defensive line coach Dave Solazzo has his guys working hard and his distinctive voice carries through the stadium as he runs his group through drills. Led by fifth-year transfer Justin Anderson, the defensive line is a veteran unit that will set the tone for the entire unit.
"I got four seniors that are back so I'd like to think they are the strength," Solazzo said. "I hope they are the leaders and they lead by example. They're very hardworking, competitive-type kids.
"Last year was a process -- a growing process. We played some tough games but the common denominator was that we competed down to the last snap every game. If we can keep doing that we should start seeing some results."
The linebackers will be a solid unit with sophomore Kassan Messiah serving as the leading returning tackler for the team (65 tackles, 3 for loss). Messiah and redshirt junior Stanley Andre are dual-threat backers who will give offensive linemen fits in the trenches whether its a run or pass.
The defensive backfield returns 28 starts from last season between Randall Jette, Joe Colton, Khary Bailey-Smith, Trey Dudley-Giles and Tom Brandt. For all of their experience, they are still relatively young and will have to make up for the loss of Darren Thellen, who led the unit with 79 tackles and three interceptions.
Molnar said that the defense seems to be ahead of schedule, a sentiment echoed by both Solazzo and coordinator Phil Elmassion with the latter saying that if he had to rate the readiness of his unit "it would be about a seven [out of 10]."
Punter Colter Johnson is one of the best punters in the MAC and was featured in our Top 68 MAC Football Players. Kicker Blake Lucas was consistent in 2012 and the return game will be handled by a committee of players led by Dudley-Giles and Davis on punt returns.
This should be a better team that the one that took the field against Central Michigan in their final game last season by leaps and bounds. A realistic expectation for the Minutemen is 2-10 with wins over Akron and Maine (FCS) but a more optimistic view could have them winning as many as four depending on how everything shakes out in the MAC.