2014 CFN Preview - UMass Minutemen
Massachusetts LB Stanley Andre
Massachusetts LB Stanley Andre
Posted Jun 26, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - The new coach knows how to succeed at UMass, but how fast can it happen? (Getty Images)

UMass Minutemen

Preview 2014

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- UMass Previews 2013  

- 2014 UMass Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Mark Whipple
1st year (second stint at UMass)
7th year at UMass 49-26
17th year overall: 121-59
Ten Best UMass Players
1. LB Stanley Andre, Sr.
2. CB Trey Dudley-Giles, Jr.
3. CB Randall Jette, Jr.
4. WR Tajae Sharpe, Jr.
5. RB Shadrach Abrokwah, Soph.
6. RB Lorenzo Woodley, Soph.
7. OG Tyrell Smith, Soph.
8. C Matt Sparks, Jr.
9. S Joe Colton, Jr.
10. QB A.J. Doyle, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Boston College
Sep. 6 Colorado
Sep. 13 at Vanderbilt
Sep. 20 at Penn State
Sep. 27 Bowling Green
Oct. 4 at Miami Univ.
Oct. 11 at Kent State
Oct. 18 Eastern Michigan
Oct. 25 at Toledo
Nov. 12 Ball State
Nov. 18 at Akron
Nov. 28 Buffalo

Thanks everyone, it's been fun.

And just like that, UMass has decided that MAC life just isn't its cup of tea, joining the conference in 2012, and leaving after the 2015 season to go become an independent, or maybe try to hook up with another conference like the American Athletic for football – while staying with the Atlantic-10 in other sports – but before taking off in two seasons, it would be nice to win a few games.

It's not like the Minutemen have taken the world by storm, going 1-11 in the first two seasons of MAC life with a win last year of a Miami University team that went winless, and a win two years ago over an Akron squad that went 1-11. The idea was to build from the ground up under Charley Molnar and grow as a program into – maybe – what UConn was able to become. That quickly changed.

Molnar is out, and in comes Mark Whipple, the coach who won the I-AA title in 1998 and went 49-26 in his six years before working as an assistant in the NFL and with the Miami Hurricanes. After missing out on a few head coaching openings, Coach Whip came back to Amherst to try to restore the glory, but it might take a little while before things go back to the days of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Molnar was never able to get the offense going. The Minutemen didn't generate any push for the ground game, couldn't throw efficiently, and struggled to put points on the board scoring 14 or fewer in eight games last season and failing to score more than seven six times.

Meanwhile, the defense wasn't all that bad considering it didn't get any help from the offense. There were some disasters here and there, and the run D was non-existent, but it wasn't the reason there were so many problems.

So what can Whipple do to start to turn everything back around?

The defensive back seven should be a strength with almost everyone returning – and it needs to be great with the front four undergoing an overhaul. Offensively, Molnar used a few true freshmen in the backfield last season, and the running game could be could if the line can retool quickly and if the passing attack can provide a little more pop.

The key now will be to not settle into a holding pattern. Can UMass use the next two years to build up for its next phase, or will it keep struggling as it waits to find out what's next? Whipple has two years to create a buzz.

What to watch for on offense: The running game needs to start working. The offensive line did a great job in pass protection last season, allowing just 16 sacks, but it couldn't keep defensive fronts out of the backfield and away from making big plays behind the line, allowing 80 tackles for loss and getting destroyed when trying to run the ball. Last year the Minutemen came up with just 1,502 rushing yards and five touchdowns, with two of the scores coming in one game against Western Michigan. On the plus side, the production was a little better as the year went on with five straight games with 100+ yards, but over the last two seasons there has been only one 200-yard outing – a 258-yard, two score day in the loss to Miami University in 2012. With three new starters up front, it could take a little bit before the offense starts to pound.

What to watch for on defense: Get more out of the defensive linemen. Depending on the alignment, the back seven or eight should be fine, but it won't matter if the line isn't better. It's not like the front four was all that fearsome last year, helping to generate just 12 sacks and getting pounded on against the run, but it was full of veterans – all four starters have to be replaced. This year's line should be bigger, and it needs to use the bulk to hold up with 6-1, 300-pound Robert Kitching and 6-2, 285-pound Daniel Maynes having to play big roles. There has to be some semblance of a pass rush from the outside, but that could come from hybrids like Trey Seals who'll work more at linebacker.

The team will be far better if … it can score. It's hard to win when you don't put points on the board - duh - and the biggest problem has been to just get into a position to put something on the board. The Minutemen were in the red zone a mere 21 times, and considering there wasn't any explosion to the passing game, scoring was a problem. In the 22 games since joining the MAC, UMass has scored more than 14 points just nine times, and almost all the scores were tied into the red zone. Controlling the ball, controlling the clock, and going on long drives will be a must – the offense has to start moving.

The schedule: There are enough decent chances to hope for a few wins, but it won't be easy. Assuming there's no chance UMass is ready to give Boston College, Colorado, Vanderbilt or Penn State much of a challenge in the first four games, it doesn't get too much easier to start the MAC campaign with defending champ Bowling Green coming to Amherst. Three of the next four games are on the road, but there are winnable dates against Miami University, Kent State and Eastern Michigan. There's no Northern Illinois from the West, but facing Toledo and Ball State is tough.

Best offensive player: Junior WR Tajae Sharpe. One of the few bright spots for the woeful offense was the 6-2, 185-pound Sharpe, who led the team with 61 catches for 680 yards and four scores. He didn't come up with many big plays, but he was a big, steady target who came up with 11 catches against Maine and Ohio with 73 yards in the finale. The No. 1 receiver, he leads a veteran group that should be a plus if the quarterback play is sharper.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Stanley Andre. Part linebacker, part defensive lineman, he can play inside or out in the linebacking corps. Last year he got in on just about everything, finishing with a team-leading 111 tackles while doing what he could to get behind the line. Built for the middle, he can hold up against the run, but he has to make more big plays as the leader of the defensive front.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB A.J. Doyle. Or senior QB Blake Frohnapfel, or redshirt freshman QB Todd Stafford. The Minutemen have to get better quarterback play, and while there are several options for the coaching staff to choose from, Doyle is the returning starter after hitting 55% of his passes with six touchdowns, but with 11 picks. He's big, looks the part and has a good arm, but he has to move the offense. It'll be a battle throughout the summer and the first part of the season as the coaching staff tries to find someone who can make the attack go.

The season will be a success if … UMass wins three games and is more competitive overall. When you win two games in two years, the bar isn't set all that high. It's still going to be tough to challenge the better MAC teams, and forget about any of the non-conference games, but the Minutemen have a shot against Miami University, Eastern Michigan, and Akron. Whipple has to provide hope that there are better days ahead in 2015 and beyond.

Key game: Sept. 27 vs. Bowing Green. Call this the know-where-you-stand type of litmus test game. Can UMass compete with the defending champions? Bowling Green has won the last two seasons by a combined score of 52-7, and while the Minutemen might not have the talent to pull off the home upset, at 0-4 – most likely – to start the season, it'll be important to make the MAC opener a game.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Rushing Touchdowns: Opponents 23 – UMass 5
- Touchdowns Scores: Opponents 50 – UMass 15
- Punt Return Average: UMass 12.2 yards – Opponents 5.4 yards

- 2014 UMass Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players