Kevin Morris and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst football team enter the final chapter of the school's FCS tenure as the team will join the Mid-Atlantic Conference at the start of the 2012-13 season, and they hope to go out with a bang.
UMass went 6-5 (4-4 CAA) last season after winning four of its first five games. The Minutemen beat then No. 4 ranked William & Mary, 27-23, to open the season and smacked Holy Cross - their opponent in Thursday's season opener in Worcester - 31-7 to open the season with a perfect 2-0 mark.
No. 20 Michigan edged UMass in a thrilling game (the only game against an FBS opponent in 2010 for the Minutemen), escaping with a 42-37 win to hand the Minutemen their first loss of the season. UMass rebounded with a 26-21 win over Stony Brook and followed it up with a 27-14 victory over Towson.
Then, the troubles set in for Morris and the Minutemen, as they would drop four of their final six games. Back-to-back losses to Richmond (11-10) and New Hampshire at Gillette Stadium (39-13) were followed by back-to-back wins against James Madison (21-14) and Maine (39-24). UMass dropped its final two games to Delaware (45-27) and Rhode Island (37-34).
UMass finished sixth out of ten teams in the CAA standings. This season, the Minutemen are not eligible for the FCS postseason as they prepare to join the MAC. They won't be eligible for the MAC title or a bowl game until 2013.
Naturally, when there is no postseason in site, it's tough to keep a team focused. That's the challenge facing UMass, which stressed the emphasis of keeping players focused on the future.
"It's going to be a challenge because of the fact that we are ineligible to go to the postseason,'' UMass AD Josh McCutcheon told the Boston Globe. "Keeping the guys focused on that and excited for what they're going to mean for the overall future of UMass football, it's really important that they understand that. I think they do.''
Nevertheless, it will be an exciting transition for UMass, one that Morris is looking forward to.
"You always want to play at the highest level possible,'' Morris told the Boston Globe. "This move certainly allows us to do so. It definitely solidifies the program.''
UMass, which enters the season ranked No. 25 in the FCS coaches poll (73 votes) and was picked to finish fifth in the CAA, opens up against in-state rival Holy Cross on Thursday night in Worcester, MA. After that, the Minutemen face Rhode Island in their home opener on September 17th before taking on the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium on September 24. UMass is at Old Dominion on October 1 and returns home to host Central Connecticut on October 8 before heading out again to playDelaware on October 15.
In the annual Colonial Clash, UMass will host the University of New Hampshire at Gillette Stadium - their future home starting in 2012 - on October 22 and will travel to take on Richmond on October 29. The Minutemen close out the season with games at home against Villanova (Nov. 5) and James Madison (Nov. 19) and at Maine (Nov. 12).
UMass is losing its gunslinger under center, Kyle Havens, who was the team's only quarterback to register snaps under center last season. In 11 games, Havens completed 219-of-345 passes for 2,692 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Redshirt freshman Brandon Hill won the preseason battle with bowling Green transfer Kellen Pagel to be the team's starting quarterback and will lead UMass into the post-Havens era.
"Both guys got better every day. Hill was just a little more consistent," Morris said. "Kellen came on late so that made me delay the decision a bit. Hill gets the job but we have a package in for Kellen. It behooves us to have both ready to play because we're looking to win games." (via Boston Herald)
Anthony Nelson led UMass in receptions (61), receiving yards (830) last season, but he graduated and will not return. The team's leading returning receiver - Julian Talley - had 56 catches for 747 yards and a team-high six TDs last year in his junior season. Tom GIlson, a redshirt senior, is listed second on the depth chart at wideout.
While UMass returns an experienced core of receivers, the lack of depth at the quarterback position means that the team most likely won't lead the CAA in total offense and passing yards like it did in 2010. Havens guided UMass to an impressive average of 413.1 total yards per game.
While the passing game is relatively inexperienced, the same cannot be said about the Minutemen rushing game. The team returns senior standout tailback Jonathan Hernandez, who rushed for 938 yards and nine TDs one season ago. Behind Hernandez on the depth chart is former Framingham High School basketball and football star Alan Williams, a redshirt junior.
Redshirt freshman Matt Campbell is listed as the starting fullback while Emil Igwenagu (RS Senior; 12 catches, 142 yards in 2010) and Rob Blanchflower (RS Sophomore; 21 catches, 179 yards, 3 TDs) make up the tight end core.
The offensive line features some experience, with Anthony Dima (RS sophomore) starting at left tackle, Josh Samuda (RS Senior) starting at left guard, Quinton Sales (RS Junior) starting at center, Brian Ostaszewski (RS Senior) starting at right guard and Stephane Milhim (RS Junior) starting at right tackle.
It may take the passing game some time to get its act together, and until then, UMass should look to the running game to carry it this early in the season.
Under new defensive coordinator Frank Forcucci, the Minutemen will transition to a 3-4 base defense instead of the usual 4-3. This, according to UMass, will highlight the team's speed and athleticism and let them pressure opposing offenses.
Senior All-America linebacker Tyler Holmes, the 2010 National Defensive Player of the Year and CAA Co-Defensive Player of the Year, is the team's defensive star, and is widely considered one of the best players in the FCS. In 2010, Holmes tied a career-high with 110 tackles (57 solo) and also recorded five sacks and five interceptions. In 2009, he also had 110 tackles (50 solo) and had one sack and four picks. Holmes is on the Buck Buchanan Award (honoring the best FCS defender) Watch List.
Courtney Jackson, formerly a defensive end, will make the transition to outside linebacker and joins an experienced linebacking core of D.J. Adeoba, Stanley Andre, Chad Hunte and Perry McIntyre.
In the backfield, safety Darren Thellen looks to lead the way after recording 46.5 tackles (third most on the team) and 40 solo tackles in 11 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2010. Christian Birt (RS Sophomore) is listed as the other starting safety and sophomore Antoine Tharpe and redshirt sophomore Mike Lee are the starting cornerbacks.
Theo Angew (RS Sophomore) is the starting left end, Charles Thompson (RS Junior) will start at left tackle, Kevin Byrne (RS Sophomore) gets the starting job at right tackle. Freshman Greg Hilliard is listed second on the depth chart at left end behind Jackson, who will make the shirt to outside linebacker.
Place kicker Calbe Violette will miss the entire season after suffering a foot injury before training camp, meaning that Brendon Levengood and Rice transfer brandon Yelovich will be the team's kickers. Levengood will be the place kicker after he handled kick-offs last season. Yelovich will handle kick-offs. Jeff Strait will be the team's punter.
Talley handled most of the team's punt returns last season and averaged 13.3 yards on nine returns last season. Jesse Julmiste, a senior, will handle the teams kick returns. Redshirt senior Travis Tripucka is listed as the long snapper while Strait is the holder on place kicks.
Having to adjust with a new quarterback is always cause for uncertainty and concern, but with a proven group of lineman and running backs, the Minutemen should be able to weather the storm of a new quarterback learning the ropes. On defense, the Minutemen are very strong at linebacker and have plenty of speed all around. If Morris can keep the team focused and not looking ahead to their first season of FBS ball next year, UMass should be able to continue their success on the football field.
Prediction: 7-4 (5-3 CAA)