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By MIKE SMITH
With a year’s experience at the FBS level and a MAC win to their credit, the UMass Minutemen are anxious for more. Nobody is predicting a MAC East crown, but Charley Molnar and his staff have been busy.  Just how many wins that can translate into remains to be seen.

The sweet first FBS win came on the road last year as UMass knocked off Akron, 22-14. Like the Minutemen, UA is improving and will again be a tough assignment. But the 2013 UMass schedule is full of challenges.

Vandy will visit

PictureDavid Osei is one of several transfers immediately available.
Non-conference dates include road trips to Wisconsin and Kansas State. Maine and Vanderbilt come calling to the Minutemen’s turf.

Within the MAC East, competition will be fierce. Toss in cross-division games at Central Michigan and home against defending Mid-American champ Northern Illinois. Suffice it to say, UMass needs to stay relatively healthy, develop as fast as it can and take advantage of opportunities whenever it can.

To get more wins, the Minutemen must address two basic issues. Both stand out in big bright lights on the scoreboard each week.
1. The opposition is scoring too many points.
2. UMass is not scoring enough.

It can’t get much simpler than that. But here it is in another form. The Minutemen ranked last (MAC games) in scoring offense (15.8 ppg) and next to last (MAC games) in scoring defense (36.0 ppg). 

OFFENSE

It’s a little scary to note that UMass personnel departures included running back Michael Cox. Sure, the Minutemen had the lowest average per rush (3.0 ypc) in MAC play, but Cox was a “go-to” guy and was drafted by the NFL’s New York Giants in April. The Michigan transfer started all 12 games for UMass last season, picking up 715 yards on 198 carries with five touchdowns. He also made 13 catches for 63 yards.  His biggest rushing day was a 188-yard effort against Miami, who must visit UMass this year.

Junior Jordan Broadnax (5-9, 175) chipped in 124 yards on 53 carries last year but totaled 1,149 all-purpose yards thanks to a 21.2 average on kick returns (long of 61 yards).

Several others could be in the mix at running back, including the highest-ranking UMass recruit ever. Lorenzo Woodley was a three-star recruit out of Christopher Columbus H.S. in Miami.

Whoever carries the ball, he will need help from an offensive line that struggled in 2012 AND lost four starters. UMass will try to build around tackle Anthony Dima (6-7, 302). The senior is on the Outland Trophy (linemen) watch list.  

Former Rutgers lineman David Osei (6-2, 280) can be plugged into various line positions. He is one of several transfers from other schools who have immediate eligibility for a final year due to the fact that they have already earned a degree at their previous stop.

Molnar and his staff will be hoping to find a combination that can not only open some running lanes, but also protect the quarterback. The Minutemen allowed a total of 32 sacks in 2012, with 24 coming in MAC competition. Only Miami (28) allowed more.

Sophomore Mike Wegzyn (6-5, 215) had a baptism by fire when he started eight games as a freshman in 2012. Not only was he stepping into Division I college football and learning the system, he was dodging plenty of oncoming rushers. It wasn’t surprising, then, that he threw 10 interceptions against six TDs.  Overall, he completed 182-of-346  pass attempts (52.6 percent) for 1,825 yards. He also rushed for 141 yards on 93 carries with two TDs.  His most productive passing day was 373 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-34 home loss to Ohio.

Sophomore A. J. Doyle (6-3, 226) saw action in eight games and started one. He was 30-for-45 in a 42-21 season-ending loss to Central Michigan. His line for the day also included two passing TDs and three interceptions.

Depending on injuries and/or production, incoming freshman Todd Stafford could also get playing time. Whoever takes the snaps, the Minutemen need to improve when passing the ball. UMass  ranked last among MAC teams in passing efficiency with a 95.3 mark. Buffalo was next at 108.8 and league-leader NIU earned a 159.1 rating.

Among the potential UMass receiving targets, tight end Rob Blanchflower stands out. The 6-4, 250-pound senior had six receptions for 64 yards in the win at Akron and 10 aerials for 100 yards in the finale against CMU.

Blanchflower's production (43 receptions, 464 yards, 2 TDs) and experience contrast with remaining targets. Sophomore Tajae Sharpe managed to record 20 catches totaling 206 yards. Beyond that, experience is even more limited. Super-senior Ricardo Miller (post-graduate transfer from Michigan) is a “hybrid” type of receiver who can play tight end but can also stretch the field as a wide receiver.

PictureJustin Anderson was at Maryland.
DEFENSE

As with the offense, the Minutemen’s defensive line struggled quite a bit in 2012.  UMass and Akron tied for the 11-12 spots with 10 sacks apiece. The Minutemen ranked 10th in defending the run.

Former Maryland defensive end Justin Anderson (6-5, 280, GRAD) could help. "Justin brings BCS size and strength to our defensive line and will be an impact player," said Molnar. "He is a multi-positional player who can play on the interior of the line or outside at defensive end. He was a starter in the ACC as a sophomore and I see him fighting for one of the starting positions here as well."

Seniors Stanley Andre and Galen Clemons return up front.

MAC  First-Team linebacker Perry McIntyre, who led UMass in tackles last year, is gone. However, the Minutemen are a bit better stocked along the second line of defense. Senior Tom Brandt (6-1, 215) played in all 12 games and logged three starts in 2012. True freshmen Kassan Messiah and Jovan Santos-Knox were starters over the last half of the season. Sophomore John Robinson (6-2, 225) saw action in 10 contests.

There is also experience in the secondary. Three positions return starters: corners Trey Dudley-Giles and Randall Jette are back, while  safeties Khary Bailey-Smith and Ed Saint-Vil each had four starts.

SPECIAL TEAMS

By and large, special teams was a bright spot for UMass 2012.

Then-freshman Blake Lucas didn’t get all that many chances, but he converted all seven FG tries after missing his first attempt and also missed one PAT try (8/9). Senior punter Colter Johnson earned Third Team All-MAC honors with a league-best 43.8 average.

The Minutemen were ninth in kickoff returns but first in kickoff coverage.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW

Coach Molnar will likely be calling on some of the new recruits to contribute in what will still be a bumpy journey. Even as he builds from the bottom, Molnar is trying to utilize what he hopes will be productive transfers. Improving line play is key, but it will likely take time.

With a lack of experience in the receiving corps and quarterbacks still in the developmental stage, UMass will need a running game. It could also use some more protection for the quarterbacks.

Defensively, if the Minutemen improve at stopping the run and can generate some more pressure, there are playmakers at the second and third levels.

NOTES

- John Bond, who joined the UMass program in the spring, will serve as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He has 28 years of coaching experience, most recently with the same duties at Georgia State. His previous stops included Georgia Tech, Northern Illinois, Army and Illinois State.  During his time at NIU, the Huskies won two MAC West titles and two bowl gmes. They went 9-4 in 2004 when NIU ranked 11th in the nation in rushing, 14th in scoring and 14th in total offense.

-- UMass ranked 12th in MAC turnovers with a mark of minus-11. The Minutemen gained just three fumbles and picked off nine interceptions. They lost seven fumbles and tossed 16 INTs.

-- Pictures courtesy of UMass Athletics


 


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