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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 120: Massachusetts

Welcome to Amherst, Mass., once voted the nicest college town in America, and as of a year ago this Thursday, home of the newest member of the MAC. Yes, change is afoot: Kevin Morris is out, Charley Molnar is in; the C.A.A. is out, replaced by the MAC East. During non-conference play, the Minutemen will substitute teams like Central Connecticut State and Old Dominion for teams like Connecticut — the big school in the Nutmeg State — Indiana, Michigan and Vanderbilt. Isn’t simply moving up the F.B.S. hard enough? Before its bye week on Oct. 13, UMass will face a team from the Big East, two teams from the Big Ten and two reigning bowl teams from the MAC. UMass will play five home games all season. And about that: home games will be played at Gillette Stadium while the university refurbishes its own stadium. Welcome to the F.B.S., Minutemen.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Amherst, Mass.

Nickname
Minutemen

Returning starters
15 (6 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. N/A

2011 record
(5-6, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. N/A

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    at Connecticut
  • Sept. 8
    Indiana
  • Sept. 15
    at Michigan
  • Sept. 22
    at Miami (Oh.)
  • Sept. 29
    Ohio
  • Oct. 6
    at W. Michigan
  • Oct. 20
    Bowling Green
  • Oct. 27
    at Vanderbilt
  • Nov. 3
    at Northern Illinois
  • Nov. 10
    at Akron
  • Nov. 17
    Buffalo
  • Nov. 24
    Central Michigan

Last year’s prediction

For the fourth and final time, not applicable. From here on out, we’ll have something to work with.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Not a terrible team, but a typical Kevin Morris-coached team. Morris, who replaced Don Brown in 2009, was nothing if not consistently mediocre: 5-6 in 2009, 6-5 in 2010 and 5-6 again last fall, his 16-17 mark with the Minutemen stands in painful contrast to Brown’s successful turn from 2004-8. His failure to match his predecessor’s success — and the program’s genuine lack of improvement during his time — led to Morris’ ouster in late November. As one would expect, Morris seemed devastated by the fact that he wouldn’t be able to lead the Minutemen into the F.B.S. in 2012. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Last year’s offense was the program’s worst since 2005. The defense hit a low not seen since 2001; even when the offense scuffled in 2005, Brown’s defense was the program’s best in a generation. Weak offense, thin defense, no progress: coaching change. UMass hopes Molnar represents an upgrade.

High point A 21-10 win at Delaware on Oct. 15. Beating Delaware at all is rare; winning in Newark is even rarer. Three of UMass’s five wins came over teams that ended 2011 with a losing record: Rhode Island went 3-8, Central Connecticut State went 4-7 and Richmond went 3-8, 0-8 in C.A.A. play.

Low point Four losses in five games to end the regular season, all in conference play. UMass was 4-2 after beating Delaware, leaving the Minutemen — theoretically — in contention for the C.A.A. title. The losses put that idea to bed: New Hampshire by six points, Villanova by 18, Maine by 11 and James Madison by 17.

Tidbit Massachusetts has been playing football since 1879, which makes the program older than all but three on the F.B.S. level: Rutgers — which played in the first college football game of all time, as we know — Northwestern and Michigan. The Minutemen aren’t Texas-San Antonio; if that program was a toddler, UMass would be its great-great-grandfather.

Tidbit (home games edition) As noted in the opening, UMass will play its five home games at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots. The stadium, though lovely, is located 94 miles from the university’s campus in Amherst. That’s quite a ways for students and local alumni to travel, though it’s likely that a strong portion of the school’s alumni are located in Boston, which is less than 30 miles outside the stadium. The Minutemen will play in Foxborough in both 2012 and 2013 while Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium — an on-campus facility — is refurbished to meet F.B.S. standards.

Tidbit (Molnar connection edition) So how did yesterday’s hint lead to Massachusetts? Let’s work from the end rather than the beginning. The coach who “was an alum of an Ivy League school and coached at two service academies” was Ben Martin, who played at Princeton in 1941, was an assistant at Navy from 1949-54 and the head coach at Air Force from 1958-77. Pepper Rodgers, an Air Force assistant from 1958-59, was the head coach at Kansas from 1967-70. Dick Tomey, one of Rodgers’ assistant at K.U., was the head coach at Arizona from 1987-2000. Jeff Woodruff, an assistant at Arizona from 1998-99, was the head coach at Eastern Michigan from 2000-3. Molnar was Woodruff’s quarterbacks coach in Ypsilanti in 2002.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 LS Jeremy Cain (Jacksonville), WR Victor Cruz (New York Giants), OT Vladimir Ducasse (New York Jets), RB John Griffin (New York Jets), WR Jeremy Horne (Kansas City).

Arbitrary top five list

Men and women of letters with Amherst ties
1. Noah Webster.
2. Emily Dickinson.
3. Robert Frost.
4. Chinua Achebe.
5. Melvil Dewey.

Coaching

Charley Molnar (Loch Haven ‘84), entering his first season. This is Molnar’s first head coaching job at any level, though he has 28 years of college experience to call on with the Minutemen. Beginning at his alma mater, Loch Haven, in 1984, Molnar’s career has gone through West Virginia — as a graduate assistant — from 1987-88, Western Carolina (1989), Illinois State (1990-93), Kent State (1994-2000), Eastern Illinois (2001), Eastern Michigan (2002), Western Michigan (2003-4), Indiana State (2005), Central Michigan (2006), Cincinnati (2007-9) and Notre Dame (2010-11). Molnar has called plays in the past, including at Kent State, but for the most part, his career has been highlighted by his work with quarterbacks; he helped tutor Dan LeFevour, for starters, but also former Indiana State quarterback Blayne Baggett, one of the best at his position in school history. As evident by his resume, Molnar’s career only took off once he joined Brian Kelly, then the Central Michigan coach, in 2006. As part of Kelly’s staff, Molnar helped the Chippewas win 10 games and a MAC championship; that offseason, he left with Kelly for Cincinnati. Three years after that, Molnar was South Bend-bound. Five years ago, he’d never be considered for any F.B.S. or major F.C.S. position. Last winter, with C.M.U., Cincinnati and Notre Dame under his belt, Molnar became a viable candidate. He’ll take Kelly’s blueprint with him to Amherst. That’s not a bad thing.

Tidbit (coaching edition) UMass has had three offensive coordinators since November. The first was Morris’ coordinator, Brian Picucci, who was relieved of his duties at the end of last season. The second was former Hawaii coordinator Nick Rolovich, who was hired by Molnar on Jan. 19 but left, 20 days later, to assume the same position at Nevada — a career upgrade, to be honest. On Feb. 22, Molnar hired former U.C.F. head coach Mike Kruczek, who had spent the last three seasons as an offensive coordinator in the U.F.L. Who is Molnar’s defensive coordinator? Phil Elmassian, of course. Take a deep breath: Elmassian has now worked at William & Mary, Richmond, Ferrum, East Carolina, Minnesota, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Syracuse, Boston College, Wisconsin, L.S.U., West Virginia, Marshall, Purdue, Nebraska, Louisiana-Monroe, Illinois State and UMass.

Players to watch

Currently a two-man quarterback competition, Molnar could open his applicant pool to three should sophomore Brandon Hill make a full recovery from recent shoulder surgery in time for fall camp in August. Hill was one of three quarterbacks to make at least one start last fall, joining Kellen Pagel and Ray Pendergast; the latter, who doubled as the Minutemen’s punter on occasion, transferred after last season. Until Hill does return to full strength, the competition will center around Pagel, a seven-game starter last fall, and redshirt freshman Mike Wegzyn.

Pagel holds the edge as UMass enters the second half of the spring: Molnar has had nice things to say about the former Bowling Green transfer, telling reporters late last week that he was progressing nicely in his third offense in as many years. Based merely on experience — of which Wegzyn has none — Pagel should get the nod: he threw for 1,725 yards, 9 scores and 9 picks last fall, his second with the program. The main reason why Pagel hasn’t won the job outright, even if he might by the time UMass heads to the summer, is that Molnar wisely opened nearly all positions to competition. Pagel remains the odds-on favorite to start, but the road isn’t as clear as it might have been had Morris and his staff been retained following last season.

That leaves Wegzyn, who also held scholarship offers from Buffalo and Eastern Michigan coming out of high school, with a chance to impress the staff enough during the spring to make himself a viable contender for the starting role. One thing both Pagel and Wegzyn should remember: the new offense runs through the quarterback. Pagel, now back in the MAC, is an intriguing prospect. For now, however, the idea that he will play at a higher level in 2012 has more to do with Molnar’s track record than anything we’ve seen from Pagel during his young career.

The Minutemen lost a 1,000-yard rusher in Jonathan Hernandez, which in turn leaves the offense without any proven options in the running game. UMass does return a pair of backs, senior Alan Williams and sophomore Jordan Broadnax, who factored into the mix a year ago: Williams rushed for 140, Broadnax for 107. But it’s a long way down from Hernandez to those relatively unproven options, which might leave Michigan transfer Michael Cox in position to move right to the top of the depth chart. Cox, who already graduated from Michigan, is eligible to play immediately. Cox, Williams, Broadnax and junior Jamar Smith are among the backs auditioning for the starting role during the spring.

The offensive line has a chance to be pretty good. It’s an experienced group, with three seniors poised to hold starting roles and four returning starters altogether. If Molnar maintains last year’s look — which would be a smart move — the Minutemen will start former Syracuse transfer Nick Speller at left tackle, Quinton Sales at center, Stephane Milhim at right guard and Anthony Dima, the lone non-senior, at right tackle. UMass still needs to find a replacement for left guard Josh Samuda, but Molnar has the option of promoting Malcolm Speller, a former Bowie State transfer, into the starting lineup. Most MAC teams don’t have this sort of returning experience. While the line still needs to step up its game to match the new level of competition, this group looks like the strength of the offense.

The change from a 3-4 base set to the 4-3, a transition currently underway, isn’t as drastic as you might think. UMass only moved to the 3-4 last fall — a last-second heave by the previous coaching staff, perhaps — after years in the 4-3, so the Minutemen have the personnel to make a fairly seamless move back to its old system. The most pressing issue will be the delicate process of alternating the defensive line back to a four-man front, which should be Elmassian and defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo’s — the mustachioed former Maryland assistant — main point of focus over the rest of spring ball and in August.

Juniors Brandon Potvin (36 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and Theo Agnew (36 tackles) are fine options at end. Both were undersized for 3-4 end; each is a better fit in the 4-3. Depth is an issue, however. For now, the Minutemen will need to land significant snaps from redshirt freshman Trey Seals and senior Daniel Maynes — Seals hasn’t played at all, obviously, and Maynes has been a non-factor through the first three years of his college career. If push came to shove, UMass might need to call on linebackers like Stanley Andre and Ryan Delaire to move down, though each has a promising future on the second level.

The Minutemen have bodies along the interior. Senior Charles Thompson (35 tackles, 3 sacks) started every game of last season at nose tackle; like Potvin and Agnew, he’s a far better fit in a four-man front. Junior Kevin Byrne, the Minutemen’s biggest linemen, made eight starts last fall. Another pair of juniors, Galen Clemons (23 tackles) and Tyler Major, provide depth. In his bio, UMass describes Major as an “explosive player in the Vince Wilfork style.” If that’s the case, look for Major to build upon last season’s three-tackle total.

If UMass was ever going to survive losing a player like Tyler Holmes, last season’s leading tackler, it would be in 2012: the Minutemen are dropping a linebacker from last year’s look, after all, meaning the situation could be worse. Now, instead of needing to supplant Holmes’ spot in the 3-4, the Minutemen can hand his partner at inside linebacker a year ago, junior Perry McIntyre, sole duties at middle linebacker. McIntyre is an all-MAC candidate: last fall, he finished second on the team tackles (116) while leading the way in tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (6.0). Linebackers with his ability to play the run and get to the quarterback are rare in the MAC.

The Minutemen also return two outside linebackers with starting experience in seniors D.J. Adeoba (30 tackles) and Chad Hunte (58 tackles). Hunte’s likely too productive to keep out of the starting lineup — likely on the weak side — but I wonder if Adeoba has the size to stand on the strong side. Andre and Delaire have prototypical strong side linebacker size, which is what makes them candidates to move down to end in certain packages. Another player to watch is sophomore Greg Hilliard, who impressed in limited duty as a true freshman.

The secondary returns all four starters, but that’s not the only reason to expect this group to take a step forward in 2012. One of the four, cornerback Kirk Nelms (39 tackles, 3 picks), was a true freshman. Another, strong safety Ed Saint-Vil (35 tackles), was a redshirt freshman. A third, cornerback Antoine Tharpe, was a sophomore. Finally, then-junior free safety Darren Thellen (team-best five interceptions), was one of the most productive defensive backs in the C.A.A.

So new defensive backs coach Jeff Burris — yes, that Jeff Burris, the former Notre Dame all-American — has talent to work with. Don’t look for much to change in the rotation, though youngsters like Randall Jette and Quayshun Smith could earn increased snaps under the new coaching staff. In addition, look for this group to continue to grow with each passing week throughout the season. Is this secondary ready to hang with the prolific offensive teams in the MAC? Not from the start, perhaps, but the secondary has the potential to end the year ranked among the top half of the conference.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver The only problem plaguing UMass is this: each of last season’s five leading receivers have exhausted their eligibility. This is a pretty big problem. The quintet combined for 198 of UMass’ 221 receptions last fall — 89.5 percent of the Minutemen’s total receptions. Or, from another angle, UMass returns only 23 of last season’s 221 receptions. Yes, this is a problem. The most experienced returning target is senior tight end Rob Blanchflower, who made 18 receptions for 208 yards while splitting time with then-senior Emil Igwenagu. Blanchflower and Igwenagu formed perhaps the best tight end pairing in the C.A.A.; if Molnar wants to have the same sort of duo in 2012 — and here’s guessing he will — UMass will need to combine Blanchflower with an underclassmen like sophomore Jerome Lewis, a former Virginia Tech transfer.

The bigger issue is the dearth of proven production at wide receiver. Last fall, the trio of Julian Talley, Jesse Julmiste and Tom Gilson combined for 142 grabs and 8 scores. How many returning receivers made at least one catch in 2011? Two. How many catches did Marken Michel and Chase Danska combine to make? Four. So this is a problem. What the Minutemen do have, however, is incoming talent. Molnar added six freshmen receivers in February, three of whom — Jaurice Jones, Rodney Mills and Dereck Beck — were on campus during the spring. At least one of the six, if not two or three, will need to play immediately. For now, based solely on experience — and limited experience at that — Michel and Danska should top the depth chart. The two-deep will be a work in progress all the way through fall camp.

Game(s) to watch

UMass could beat Indiana, though that’s more an indictment of the Hoosiers than a grand statement about the Minutemen’s ability to hit the ground running against a non-conference schedule loaded with premier opposition. Both September and October will be ugly for UMass, but the last three weeks provide this team with an opportunity to close strong. After going to Akron on Nov. 10, UMass ends the year with home games against Buffalo and Central Michigan.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell In terms of history, prestige, talent and overall readiness for this new endeavor, UMass ranks highest among the four new additions to the F.B.S. in 2012 — not that the Minutemen are heads and shoulders above, and remember that we’re comparing this team to South Alabama, not plain-old Alabama. Nevertheless, more so than Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and the Jaguars, UMass has enough returning talent and experience to hang with a handful of teams on its conference schedule. Whether the Minutemen can do more — win three games in the MAC, for example — hinges on a handful of key factors. One is the quarterback play, which was mediocre a year ago. Another is at wide receiver, where the Minutemen are starting from scratch after losing three seniors. The front seven needs to readjust to the 4-3, though I don’t think we’ll see an extended learning curve. The secondary, though promising, still needs time to develop. More than anything, consider the two events hitting this program simultaneously: one, the move to the F.B.S., and two, the coaching change. Molnar is driven, confident and wholly convinced that UMass will one day — soon, actually — be the best football program in New England. There’s little reason why this dream can’t one day be a reality. This year’s schedule will put a short-term dent in those plans, sadly. Two wins, both coming in MAC play, would be great. Three would be outstanding. It’s a process — for UMass as much as U.T.S.A., Texas State and South Alabama.

Dream season UMass is the talk of the MAC after opening the year with wins over Connecticut and Indiana. After a midseason lull, the Minutemen rebound with three straight wins in November to end the year 6-6.

Nightmare season No wins. None during non-conference play, of course, which wouldn’t be surprising. But none during MAC action either — not even Akron, Buffalo or Central Michigan.

In case you were wondering

Where do Massachusetts fans congregate? Not many options. Some message board talk can be found at UMass Hoops, though the name of the site is reason for concern. The best spots for football news, in my mind, are the more aptly-named UMass Football Blog and Maroon Musket. More old-fashioned coverage can be found at the Web sites of The Republican and the Daily Hampshire Gazette. There have to be other options. If not, the opportunity is there for an intrepid UMass fan to fill the void.

Massachusetts’ all-name nominee TE Rob Blanchflower.

Word Count

Through five teams 16,117.

Up Next

Who is No. 119? After graduating from college, the athletic director at tomorrow’s university spent six years studying for the priesthood.

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Comments

  1. Josh H. says:

    I am just slightly surprised to see UMass at 120 though I have no real issue with it. Seeing as I mostly follow the MAC, I definitely have to believe that this team is going to be ready for conference play and give several teams a run for their money. But the MAC is also a QB conference and with them being suspect at that position as well as WR, it could be an issue for them. Their defense seems about as well as the lower end MAC schools as well. About the only thing they will have to get used to is the pace of the FBS level. It may take a year but I certainly don’t really see them ending at the bottom of the MAC this year with a win at the very least against Akron. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are somehow able to upset a team either such as Indiana (but really, who can’t beat them lol), Bowling Green or Miami (OH).

  2. brian says:

    Having home games in Gillette will bring Umass closer to its main alumni base in the Boston area. In the last two seasons Umass has played UNH there and drew pretty good crowds, especially compared to games in Amherst. Of course, see Tulane and Temple for the long-term problems of playing in a pro stadium if you can’t sell it out.

  3. Bobak says:

    Every time I think I’ve heard of every college out there a name like “Loch Haven” shows up and sends searching on Wikipedia.

  4. Ezra says:

    I’m curious what exactly are “F.B.S. standards.” I’ve seen some FBS games in very shabby places; either those schools (UNT, several Louisiana schools, etc.) are getting away with not meeting the standards, or UMass is renovating to do much more than meet the minimum.

  5. Will says:

    Memphis is next.

  6. Brian says:

    You forgot James Ihedigbo on the NFL players list.

  7. GTWrek says:

    Why does the Big East keep passing over ECU for the likes of Memphis…

  8. Burnt Orange says:

    @Ezra, there used to be a 30,000 seat capacity minimum for FBS stadiums. They did away with that rule but I think FBS schools do have to average 15,000 in actual or paid attendance at least every other year or risk losing their status. As a practical matter, to average 15,000, a mediocre or young program usually needs 25,000 capacity. Many FCS stadiums do not seat 15,000 or barely do so. Would guess an upgrade in capacity is what is going on at UMass. If they are smart, they will add good sideline seats and some luxury boxes- more revenue for better seats. An example of what not to do is one of the stadiums you mentioned – old Fouts Field at UNT. When UNT made the move up, they added a bunch of horrible aluminum bleachers way beyond the end zone which no one wanted to sit in.

  9. Enrico Palazzo says:

    Cincinnati Bengal safety Jeromy Miles is a UMass graduate too.

  10. Brian says:

    James is listed as an unrestricted free agent on the Patriots website. Sorry about that.

  11. Mark says:

    I’m just happy my alma mater finally made the leap to the FBS level, it’s a long time coming.

  12. Wagu says:

    a few mistakes Maynes is a red-shirt sophomore and Major ruined his shoulder and can no longer play

  13. Crimson & Clover says:

    It baffles me that a team that goes a game under .500 in FCS competition (yes, the CAA, but still) fancies itself ready or deserving of an upgrade to FBS. Is the money for 0-12 really that much better? That would have to be the answer if you’re banking on mid-term mediocrity, right?

  14. Welcome to the MAC & FBS! says:

    That UMass is listed the highest among the four new programs and listed above New Mexico speaks to the stability and strength of the MAC and the great growth potential for both UMass football and the MAC.

    Welcome aboard, UMass!

    I look forward to seeing your program grow and add the the strength of the MAC East.

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