by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Massachusetts is one of the four teams moving up from the FCS ranks to the Football Bowl Subdivision this season. But, unlike virtual football newcomers South Alabama and Texas-San Antonio, Massachusetts has a long football tradition, as everyone in New England knows. Minutemen teams have been seen on the gridiron for 129 years! Since 1978, when Division I-AA was established (before becoming the Football Championship Division in 2006), UMass has appeared in eight NCAA football tourneys, including three title games (1978, 1999, 2006), winning the championship in 1999. During that time, the Minutemen have won 22 conference titles as a member variously of the Yankee Conference, Atlantic-10, or Colonial Athletic Association.

Years ago, UMass sent players such as QB Greg Landry and imposing TE Milt Morin (right) to the NFL. And, in recent years, Giants’ WR Victor Cruz, Jets’ OLman Vladimir Ducasse, and Patriots’ safety James Ihedigbo have graduated from the Minutemen to NFL lineups. Indeed, UMass is neither a “newcomer,” in the full sense of the word, nor a slouch as it steps into the MAC East this season. Massachusetts in this transition year is neither eligible for the MAC championship nor postseason play until next season, and that has a lot to do with how the Minutemen brain trust has decided to take giant steps in departing the CAA for the “big time,” such as the MAC might be considered to be (a righteous and respected league with a slew of good players, but without the premium power at the top and solid depth in the middle that characterizes the Big Six leagues).

Among those “giant steps” mentioned above are the following. A brand new coaching staff, led by former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar (six years on the staff of Brian Kelly at Central Michigan, Cincinnati, then Notre Dame; 11 years overall as an offensive coordinator). A new, modern, no-huddle, spread offense, being directed by Mike Kruczek, the former Boston College and Pittsburgh Steeler QB with two Super Bowl rings and 30 years of coaching experience. A move from UMass’ cozy, on-campus McGuirk Stadium in Amherst to 69,000-seat Gillette Stadium in Foxborough (or, Foxboro, if you choose, as UMass does), which is a two-hour drive from campus. But what could be more appropriate than the Minutemen playing at the home of the Patriots? Besides, performing near Boston, where the NFL plays, offers the school both a nice recruiting tool for the future and easier access to the many well-heeled UMass alumni in the metro Beantown area.

The next thing for the university to do is to put a high-quality product on the football field. That might not be so easy, especially in this first season in the MAC, which has become known for its well-coached, high-scoring contests. Offense is not what UMass (5-6 in 2011) did well last season, rushing for only 3.5 ypc, completing only 13 TD passes, posting a -5 turnover margin, and missing 5 of 34 PAT kicks. Moreover, UMass’ top returning rusher (5-8 sr. Alan Williams) totaled only 140 yards on the ground last season, while returning WRs combined for only four receptions. In the only Minuteman game vs. an FBS opponent last season, offensively-limited Boston College drubbed their in-state foe 45-17. In short, HC Molnar & o.c. Kruczek have a lot of work to do.

They’ll be counting upon improvement from 6-3 jr. QB Kellen Pagel (left; 57.3%, 9 TDs, 9 ints. in 2011), who spent 2009 & 2010 at Bowling Green. Also getting a look will be 6-5 soph Brandon Hill (58.3%, 3 TDs, 3 ints.), who had three starts last season, and 6-5 RS frosh Mike Wegzyn. But it should be a plus for those passers working under proven QB mentors such as Molnar & Kruczek. The OL (4 of 5 starters return) is senior-oriented, and RS frosh TE Brandon Howard had a good spring and will team with proven sr. TE Rob Blanchflower (18 recs. in 2011). Molnar is hoping that a couple of immediately-eligible senior transfers--once coveted HS recruits--will help quickly on offense in the MAC. RB Michael Cox appeared in 15 games for Michigan, while 6-3 WR Deion Walker learned Molnar’s system in his days at Notre Dame, where Walker found himself stacked behind several NFL-bound WRs. Still, everyone will be learning the new offense on the fly after UMass employed mostly a multiple pro-set last season.

It might be a different story on defense, even though that unit is changing from last year’s 3-4 to a 4-3 base in 2012. The Minutemen gave up 28 ppg last season, but were stubborn about it, yielding only 3.9 ypc. FCS A-A LB Tyler Holmes (Chicago Bears’ camp) has moved on, but a deep corps of LBs returns, including 6-1, 240 sr. MLB Perry McIntyre, who had 116 tackles and 6½ sacks last season. The defensive line is well-seasoned, including sr. DT Charles Thompson, who collected three sacks in 2012. He will be aided by 6-1, 295 sr. transfer NT Hafis Williams, who saw action in 24 games at Notre Dame and is now a grad student. The secondary has three seasoned stalwarts in jr. CB Antoine Tharpe (third year as a starter), sr. S Darren Thallen (five ints. LY), and 6-2 jr. Christian Birt, who can help at either S or CB.

Considering the issues at RB and WR going into the season, coach Molnar is hoping that kicking does not remain another. Holdover kicker Brendon Levengood coverted only 18 of 23 PATs and did not have a FG of more than 38 yards in 2011.

Summary...In these days of uptempo, spread ‘em out, wide-open attacks, Massachusetts finds itself in a transitional phase and trailing most of the MAC pack, many by a big margin (consider Toledo’s 63-60 loss vs. Northern Illinois last season, followed by the Rockets’ 66-63 victory over Western Michigan, both in regulation, by the way). Moreover, the transition gets tougher right out of the gate, with UMass traveling to take on long-time Yankee Conference rival Connecticut in the first game for the Minutemen as an FBS member. That will be followed by a Foxborough opener vs. Big Ten member Indiana, and then a big-payday pasting at Michigan. There is a substantial chance that ambitious (and over-scheduled) UMass could be beaten up and discouraged by the time its MAC schedule even begins with its Game Four at Miami-O. But, remember, with no title or bowl possibilities anyway, this is a building year in Amherst for Molnar, who says he added OL size, WR talent, and DB speed in this year’s recruiting class. Next year is the time for the Minutemen to make a move in the MAC, even though several league foes are likely to find a W harder to come by vs. the Minutemen than they thought it would be in 2012. Late-season games vs. the likes of Akron & Buffalo might offer UMass a chance to avoid the MAC East cellar.


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