Offense a big focus this season
After being picked to finish eighth in the 10-team Colonial Athletic Conference preseason poll, UMass will be highly motivated to prove the experts wrong when it opens the season on Saturday (3:30 p.m.) against No.4 William & Mary.
"I think what the preseason polls are all about, if you're on top, you don't pump up your guys because you don't want to get big-headed, and if you're on the bottom, you use that as a motivational tool," said second-year UMass coach Kevin Morris. "We want to come out and prove it on the field every day and get better every day and get ready for William & Mary."
Here are five questions facing the Minutemen this season.
1. Will the addition of Northeastern transfer John Griffin, who joins incumbent Jonathan Hernandez, provide UMass with a double weapon at tailback?
Definitely. "We had Jonathan Hernandez step in for Tony Nelson when Nelson (a First Team All-CAA) got hurt last year," said Morris, whose club gained 1,633 rushing yards (4.0 average) last season. "Hernandez (577 yards, 8 TDs) stepped up and did a marvelous job for us. He's a very tough and fast runner. Now, we get John Griffin (1,009 yards, 5 TDs) who was a First Team all-league tailback, so we think we're pretty strong at tailback with those two guys."
2. Will a year under his belt as starter help senior quarterback Kyle Havens?
Havens, who completed 146-of-264 for 1,908 yards with nine touchdowns and 15 interceptions in his first year behind center at UMass, is clearly a more relaxed player this preseason.
"This year, I, one-hundred percent, feel that every single person on this team knows that I'm the guy and I'm going to lead them where we need to go. It's amazing. Last year, we didn't know who was starting the K-State game until the day before (the game)," Havens said. "Right now, it feels good to know that I'm the guy and I have all my coaches' support, all my teammates' support. Just being the second year in the offense is huge for me. Last year, I knew what I was doing on every play. Now, I feel I know what everyone is doing on every play. Coach Morris always talks about 'owning the play' and I feel I'm really starting to get a grasp on that."
3. Just how potent will the offense be with Hofstra transfer wideout Anthony Nelson added to the two strong tailbacks in Amherst?
"We still want to be a balanced offense. We want to throw the ball to open up the run and we want to run the ball to open up the throw," Morris said, whose team piled up 26.8 points per game a year ago. "In the end, we've always been a little more run because we like to have the lead in the fourth quarter and then pound the rock and finish out the clock and win the ballgame that way. So, we want to still be in that 55-45 run-to-pass (range). With these two guys (Griffin and Hernandez) we may go 65-35. Whatever it takes to win a game. If we have to throw it 70 times, we'll do that. If we have to run it 70, we'll run it 70 and with those two guys at tailback you can pound it 70 if you needed to."
4. With only five true seniors will UMass lack needed leadership?
Not really if the underclassmen come through.
"I think it opens the door for other guys to blossom earlier," said Morris, who has a pair of junior captains in versatile tight end/linebacker/H-Back Emil Igwenagu of Boylston and linebacker Tyler Holmes. "They're not rah-rah guys. They're just down-home, blue-collar workers and I think that's what UMass is all about. And our guys appreciate that and voted them unanimously saying that these are the guys we wanted in front, to be our focal point (publicly), but also make the demands in the lockeroom. ... They picked the right two guys, I think."
5. How can UMass survive loss of Vlad Ducasse, now with the NY Jets, on the offensive line?
The addition of versatile left guard Greg Niland from the defunct Northeastern program and sophomore Nick Speller, a left tackle, out of Syracuse University, will be a big step in the right direction.
"It's defintely going to help. Greg Niland is a senior and it's hard to recruit seniors who have played college football and Nick Speller is a transfer. So, both are experienced guys and both guys will start. Not having Vlad Ducasses is obviously a huge drop-off, no matter what, but having these two experienced guys coming in will help," Morris said.