UMass Football 2014 Season Preview
Aug. 26, 2014
AMHERST, Mass. - The 2014 UMass football campaign may well be known as a season of comebacks. Starting with the return of several home games to McGuirk Alumni Stadium on the UMass campus to the return of one of the most well-known coaches in program history, Mark Whipple, the Minutemen enter the new year with a lot of hope and optimism on their side.
Off the field, improvements for the program include the completion of the UMass Football Performance Center - the new 55,000 square foot home of UMass football - along with the Martin And Richard Jacobson Press & Skybox Complex at McGuirk Stadium. The completion of these two keystone projects allow the Minutemen once again to play home games in their traditional campus stadium, while still hosting several games at Gillette Stadium.
The hiring of Whipple in January renewed fans' excitement for the program after a tough first two seasons at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. The return of Whipple also meant the return of several of UMass' greatest players in program history - this time as members of the coaching staff. UMass alums Liam Coen, Marcel Shipp and Charles Walker will be seen on the sidelines this year, while former staffers Tom Masella, Mike Cassano and Paul Gorham also return to join Coach Whipple. While Whipple said he would not be making the guarantee of a national championship like he did during his first coaching stint at UMass, fans can expect a new look with the Minutemen as another chapter in the FBS era is started.
On offense, Whipple will call the plays for an offense that returns to its traditional Pro Set formation. The change in offense will reflect in a change of tempo as the Minutemen will move away from the no-huddle, spread. A bigger emphasis on play-action set-up by the run game will be on tap, but UMass will have several key areas that need to find success in 2013 if progress is to be made.
As always, it will start in the trenches where the Minutemen lost three veteran linemen from 2013 in Anthony Dima, David Osei and Vincent Westcarr. Matt Sparks returns at center while Tyrell Smith moves to left guard. Fabian Hoeller and Tyshon Henderson are expected to push for starting roles, while Cameron Mock, Elijah Wilkinson and Josh Bruns will also be in the mix.
Blake Frohnapfel, a graduate student with two years of eligibility remaining, earned the starting quarterback nod after a grueling preseason camp battle with junior A.J. Doyle. Frohnapfel arrived at UMass from Marshall, where he earned his undergraduate degree in three years upon the completion of the Spring 2014 semester. At Marshall, Frohnapfel went 35-for-45 passing (77.8 completion pct.) with 386 yards and five touchdowns as the back up to Conference USA MVP Rakeem Cato in 2012 and 2013.
Frohnapfel was equally as successful with his legs as he scampered for 167 yards and a pair of touchdowns over 24 carries (7.0 yards per rush). Doyle challenged Frohnapfel throughout camp as the returning veteran entered the preseason with 184 completions in 333 attempts (55.4 completion pct.) as a Minuteman through his freshman and sophomore seasons. A more-than-capable reserve, Doyle has thrown for 1,693 career yards and nine touchdowns over 19 appearances, including 10 starts. Ross Comis, Andrew Verboys and Austin Whipple showed progress during the fall preseason as well and will fight for reps under center.
The returning offensive weapons for the Minutemen are an interesting group this year. Gone is all-time tight end Rob Blanchflower, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventh round during the off-season. However, the bulk of the receiving and running back corps return largely intact.
Tajae Sharpe is widely regarded as one of the top receivers in the Mid-American Conference and should be the Minutemen's top option in 2014. He posted a career-best 61 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns last year as a sophomore. Also returning are Bernard Davis and Elgin Long who each started at the other wideout positions last year. Shakur Nesmith returns after suffering a season ending injury at Wisconsin last year as does Marken Michel after spending a year away from football last season. Penn State transfer Alex Kenney joins the Minutemen and is heralded as one of the fastest players on the team and potentially the MAC. Also transferring to UMass is Jalen Williams, who impressed fans during the spring.
While the wide receiving corps looks to be deep even though it is relatively inexperienced in the new scheme, it is the running back position that has a tremendous amount of potential talent. Finding reps for each of the backs will be a challenge, but if the Minutemen can avoid the same injury bug that hit the group last year, it could be a strong position group.
Predicted 2013 starting tailback Jordan Broadnax is back after suffering a season-ending injury during preseason camp last year. Also back are Jamal Wilson and Lorenzo Woodley who combined for seven starts, 184 carries, 682 yards rushing and three touchdowns last year. Shadrach Abrokwah also returns after being the surprise of the year in 2013. With the backfield decimated by injuries, Abrokwah carried the load in the final two games last year where he averaged 101.5 yards and scored a touchdown.
J.T. Blyden is another impressive newcomer in the backfield who adds to the mix and should ensure strong competition throughout the year.
The tight end position will be another interesting area after the loss of Blanchflower, who was the second leading receiver last year in terms of yards and touchdowns. Brandon Howard saw the bulk of the action as the starting tight end during the spring. Sharif Custis and Mills are also expected to make contributions throughout the year. Junior college transfer Jon Denton possesses an impressive resume as well as physical attributes at the position. Jordan Fiske and Jon Lucier will definitely add depth to the group, while Todd Stafford converted to the position from quarterback prior to the start of preseason camp.
While the offense moves back to a more traditional look, the defense will shift to a 3-4 scheme which has been utilized at times over the previous three seasons. Masella takes over as the defensive coordinator and inherits what should be one of the top overall secondaries in the MAC. The defense also features several seasoned linebackers led by fifth-year senior Stanley Andre, but will need to find depth on the line if the group is to be successful.
Up front, fifth-year senior Daniel Maynes will anchor the defensive line with sophomore Peter Angeh and redshirt freshman Sha-Ki Holiness seeing time at the defensive end positions during spring camp.
Enoch Asante and Femi Oyewole saw time over the spring as back-up defensive ends and are also projected to see the field during the season.
Junior John Robinson-Woodgett has been a very solid inside linebacker and special teams member, while Peter Ngobidi played in six games as a true freshman last year. Outside linebacker Da'Sean Downey was impressive in the spring game with speed off the edge and could be a key player in the group.
If UMass can play well against the run and have a strong presence off the edge, the secondary could be one of the top overall units in the MAC. Redshirt junior Randall Jette and junior Trey Dudley-Giles have each started the last two seasons at the cornerback spots, while Joey Colton has started at strong safety.
Khary Bailey-Smith is coming off an injury from the 2013 season and has plenty of game experience and a wealth of athletic ability. He will be pushed in preseason camp by several veteran back-ups and newcomers.
Quayshun Smith and DuVaughn Beckford add experience as back-ups on the corners or as players in a nickel package. Redshirt freshman Jackson Porter will look to crack the line-up as a back-up safety, while Lucas Amato could also see time there.
Newcomers Charan Singh, Jarell Addo and converted linebacker Zeke Edmonds were each highly regarded coming out of high school and add athleticism and hard hitting to the group. Sophomore D.J. Woods moves to cornerback after playing wide receiver last season, while redshirt freshman Jesse Monteiro made several nice plays in the spring game. Junior Jaurice Jones and freshman Jeremy Rodriguez round out the secondary. On special teams, several new faces will be vying for time during the upcoming season. Redshirt freshman Logan Laurent and graduate student Brian McDonald will battle for punting duties.
After enjoying the consistent service of Vance Barton as the long snapper and Jeff Strait as the holder on field goals and PATs, this is another area of the kicking game that will see change this year. Nick Berus and Emmett Odegard are UMass' top long-snappers, while Frohnapfel could serve the holder.
The return game should be a strong suite for UMass with Trey Dudley-Giles having excelled over the last two years on punt returns and kick returns. With Broadnax back, the pair could be very dangerous with their combination of speed and agility.