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This will be UMass’s fourth year in the FBS. I know time flies right? In that time, the Minutemen have acquired lots of pain and experience. They are 5-22 since stepping up to the big time (or mid-major time if you want to be more literal). Now, it is getting about time for that pain and experience to translate into tangible wins. Will this be the year, their last in the MAC, that that happens?
The biggest reason for optimism in Amherst, other than the Minutemen returning more starters than most other teams in the FBS, is the potentially stellar quarterback-to-receiver combo of Blake Frohnapfel to Tajae Sharpe. Frohnapfel threw for over 3,000 yards last year, and threw only 10 interceptions in over 400 pass attempts. Sharpe only caught 85 passes for 1,281 yards and 7 TDs last year. Both of those guys have appeared on several preseason All-MAC teams, and Sharpe is largely considered one of the top NFL prospects in the MAC.
Sharpe and Frohnapfel can’t bear the whole load of the offense though. Fortunately, they shouldn’t have to with two running backs who exceeded 100 carries last season returning. Shadrach Abrokwah and Lorenzo Woodley combined for almost 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground last season. Those aren’t great numbers, but considering this is a pass heavy team, it is competent. The primary receiving targets behind Sharpe are most likely to be Jalen Williams and tight end Rodney Mills. Mills has also gotten so preseason All-MAC love, despite not being the starting tight end a season ago.
Another big positive for the Minutemen is that their entire offensive line returns intact. In fact, there are seven offensive linemen on this team who have started at least one game, and four more with in-game experience. The leaders will likely be C Matt Sparks and LT Tyrell Smith, who have 24 and 23 starts respectively.
Now here’s where the optimism stops for UMass. Last year was a nightmare for the Minutemen defense. They were pretty bad against the run, but they were even worse against the pass. What’s even more bizarre (or not if you understand statistics but it seems bizarre at first), is that their overall per game yards allowed ranked worse than either their passing or rushing yards allowed per game. If there was one silver lining for the defense, then it was that they were halfway decent at stopping the run in short yardage situations, so a bend-but-don’t-break defense may be a decent play for UMass.
The other good news here is that they only lose two defensive starters in NT Daniel Maynes and LB Stanley Andre. That means the team loses 15% of their tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 3 pass break-ups from a season ago. Granted, that’s a decent amount of production for two players, but with nine returning starters on defense they should have solid continuity at the very least. The two guys to watch for this defense are LB Jovan Santos-Knox and CB Randall Jette. Santos-Knox is a true run stopper, having amassed 143 tackles last season. Jett proved himself as a playmaker in his own right by breaking up 14 passes and hauling in 4 interceptions.
I apologize for getting your hopes up for the last 450 words only to predict only modest improvement. However, not all progress always has tangible evidence to support it. That’s particularly true in football. The biggest issue here is that their two easiest games (Buffalo and Eastern Michigan) are road games. So, despite the fact that they should win both of those games, there is at least a reasonable chance that they split or worse. Other sources of wins will most likely come from home dates against Akron, Kent State, and/or Miami (OH).
Credit Cover Photo to J. Anthony Roberts