When you think of Amherst, Mass., you don’t particularly think Mid-America. However, the Massachusetts Minutemen have been one of the most interesting MAC teams to watch in the last four years. UMass made the FCS to FBS jump in 2012, and despite winning only five games in that span, the team has been a must-watch in the last year or so.
The team’s success certainly coordinates with the return of Mark Whipple (124-68 in career) to the helm of the Minutemen; in his first stint from 1998-2003, Whipple led UMass to the NCAA I-AA National Championship in his first season. The last time UMass found their way into any postseason play was in 2007, when they were named the Colonial co-champions.
The schedule has one repeat opponent from last season in Colorado (41-38 loss in 2014), and provides a favorable conference slate to make UMass a potential contender in the MAC East. UMass’ schedule is unique in that they are the only school in the conference to have a week one BYE.
(Asterisks denote conference games, while pound signs denote regional or national television broadcasts.)
|Sept. 12th||at Colorado Buffaloes|
|Sept. 19th||vs. Temple Owls#|
|Sept. 26th||at Notre Dame Fighting Irish#|
|Oct. 3rd||vs. Florida International Golden Panthers|
|Oct. 10th||at Bowling Green Falcons*|
|Oct. 17th||vs. Kent State Golden Flashes*#|
|Oct. 24th||vs. Toledo Rockets*|
|Oct. 31st||at Ball State Cardinals*|
|Nov. 7th||vs. Akron Zips*|
|Nov. 14th||at Eastern Michigan Eagles*|
|Nov. 21st||vs. Miami Redhawks*|
|Nov. 27||at Buffalo Bulls*|
Last season, the Minutemen were a volatile, flash-in-the-pan offense that could scorch teams one week, and stall in the other. Coach Whipple handles all the offensive calls, and the effect has been obvious; the Minutemen’s yards per game and scoring numbers both doubled from 2013, looking at 421.1 yards and 27.3 points per game, up from 281 yards and 11.7 points per game.
Blake Frohnapfel was a revelation at the quarterback position last season. The Marshall grad transfer threw for 3,345 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2014, despite missing the final two games of the season with injury. For his efforts, Frohnapfel was named first-team All-MAC quarterback last season and this year, is on the watch list for the Davey O’Brien Award. Behind Frohnapel is redshirt sophomore Austin Whipple, the son of coach Mark, who threw for 325 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in relief duty. The passing game experienced a renaissance under Whipple’s guidance, finishing 11th in the nation with 311.8 yards of passing per game.
Two of the running backs that participated in the running back by committee system return for action this season, including the speedster junior Shadrach Abrogwah (578 yards, seven touchdowns in eight games in 2014) and redshirt junior Jamal Wilson (88 yards, one touchdown before season-ending injury).
Junior Lorenzo Woodley will make a nice third back in this system, as he ran for 415 yards and four touchdowns last season. Andy Isabella will probably get some playing time as a true freshman after a 2013 campaign that saw him rush for 1,144 total yards and eight touchdowns. Isabella also ran a 10.51 100-meter dash in 2014, making him one of the fastest high-school athletes in the United States. They’ll need as many contributors as possible; UMass had only 109.3 yards per game last season.
The wide receiver position is top heavy, but does return all three starters from last season. Leading receiver Tajae Sharpe returns his national top 15 receiving numbers to the Minutemen offense, after a fantastic 85 reception, 1,281 yard, seven touchdown campaign in 2014. At 6’4″, 220 lbs, Sharpe is a nightmare matchup with his length and incredible jumping ability. Shifty flex position player Marken Mickel (501 total yards, three touchdowns) and Jalen Williams (20 rec., 307 yards) will also start alongside Sharpe. At tight end, senior Rodney Mills (30 rec., 489 yards, five touchdowns) will have the unenviable task of replacing Jean Sifrin (85 rec., 1,281 yards, seven touchdowns).
The offensive line returns all five starters from last season, including all-MAC level left tackle Tyrell Smith (6’5″, 315 lbs.) and 6″7″, 315 lb. left guard Michael Boland. The rest of the line is pretty big as well, averaging 6’4″, 297 lbs. between center Matt Sparks, right guard Fabian Hoeller, and Elijah Wilkinson. With three juniors (Smith, Boland, Noeller, and Wilkinson) and one senior (Sparks) on the line, UMass returns one of the most experienced offensive lines in the MAC.
Massachusetts could definitely have done better last season on the defensive side of things. As a group, Tom Masella’s defense gave up 447.5 yards and 33 points per game, ranking them 101st and 103rd in the country in both numbers. However, a lot of key playmakers from last year return to be contributors to a defense that should be much improved.
The line returns two of their three starters from last season, with only Daniel Maynes (44 tackles, 1.5 sacks in 2014) departing due to graduation. Sophomore defensive end Sha-Ki Holines (34 tackles, 2.0 sacks in 2014) and junior defensive tackle Peter Angeh (34 tackles, one sack in 2014) will anchor the line, while senior Robert Kitching (43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two blocked kicks) projects to play the nose tackle spot. Junior Enock Asante (18 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss) and senior Al Leneus (seven appearances) could see time at tackle, with a crop of true freshmen and redshirt underclassmen including Femi Oyewole, Mario Patton, and Michael Dowe Jr. looking to fill reserve roles.
Chuck Bednarik Award Watch Lister Jovan Santos-Knox will be a name to look out for at linebacker after an incredible 2014 campaign that saw him compile 143 tackles, three forced fumbles, six pass breakups, and two sacks. The senior will be joined by two fellow starting seniors, including Kassan Messiah (69 tackles, 3.0 sacks) and Trey Seals (42 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery in 2014). Juniors John Robinson-Woodgett (23 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss), Vondell Langston (20 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss) and sophomores Shane Huber (16 tackles, .5 sacks in 2013), and Steve Casali (23 tackles) will be fighting for the remaining linebacker spot.
All four senior starters return to the Minutemen in the secondary, with a lot of ridiculously good individual talent at all positions. Randall Jette (67 tackles, 18 passes defended, 14 pass breakups, four interceptions) is on the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List, while Trey Dudley-Giles (52 tackles, nine passes defended, two interceptions, one forced fumble) has been named to Phil Steele’s preseason third-team all-MAC squad. Junior transfer Kelton Bracey (64 career tackles, nine pass breakups, one interception in three years at UAB), and sophomore Jesse Monteiro (nine tackles in twelve appearances in 2014) will most likely backup Jette and Dudley-Giles. The safeties are pretty much set, with Khary Bailey-Smith (62 tackles, six pass breakups, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries in 2014) and Joe Colton (98 tackles, four pass breakups, one sack in 2014) reprising roles as starters.
Special Teams Preview
The days of starter Blake Lucas (12-of-22 on field goals in three years) are likely done for, as true freshman Michael Caggiano will most likely take over at the placekicking position. Logan Laurant (4-of-6 on field goals, 13-of-18 on extra points), who took over at kicker last season for Lucas, will play his natural position and handle punts. Trey Dudley-Giles and Khary Bailey-Smith are one of the most dangerous return duos in the conference, and perhaps even in the nation.
Massachusetts will be using this season as a sort of audition, hoping to catch the attention of a conference with video game-esque numbers on offense and explosive big-play potential on defense, and it has the roster to make such a run in its swan song season in the MAC.
Frohnapfel will lead the offensive attack for the Minutemen, who will rely on speedsters at all skill positions, including Sharpe, Michel, Abrokwah, and Mills, and an offensive line built to protect the quarterback. On defense, the linebacking corps will look to set the tempo this season with a hard-hitting, sideline-to-sideline style of play with Jovan Santos-Knox leading the front seven. A stacked secondary could be a no-fly zone for opposing defenses if their aggression doesn’t get the best of them.
Overall, the roster is very top heavy, with lots of inexperience beyond the two-deep that could cause trouble for UMass if a key playmaker gets hurt. The individual talent, combined with 19 returning starters on offense and defense, is so immense, that UMass has a real chance to make a bowl game this year. UMass should make a run at the MAC East this year and significantly improve on their 3-9 (3-5 MAC) record from last season.