J.T. Blyden earning the trust, respect of his teammates

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Massachusetts football starting linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox shakes his head in amazement when asked about freshman running back J.T. Blyden.

“J.T.’s really, really good,” Santos-Knox said. “He’s going to be a great player for the future of UMass. I can’t really consider him a younger guy because we’re going to need him this year. He’s really, really talented and we’re going to use him a lot for sure.”

UMass fans got a glimpse of Blyden on Saturday against Boston College, as he ran for 43 yards on nine carries, including a 14-yard run off-tackle. Blyden spelled starting running back Jamal Wilson midway through the second quarter and assumed the majority of the workload.

Santos-Knox and the rest of the Minutemen caught their first glimpse of Blyden in early August when he arrived on campus as a true freshman, running with the scout team on the first day of practice. He entered camp with relatively minimal fanfare — he’s been committed to UMass since his junior year of high school — but picked up the playbook quickly, working his way into earning more and more reps as he adjusted to the speed of the game throughout practice.

“Practice already had me up to speed I believe,” Blyden said. “My first day of practice, I was like amazed by the speed. When we have intra-squad scrimmages and everything, that was really beneficial to getting used to the speed of the game.”

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Takeaways: UMass lacking in complementary football, depth against BC

Photo by Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Photo by Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

With so many new parts and little film or exposure entering Saturday’s game against Boston College, much of the allure surrounding the Massachusetts football team was simply seeing who exactly did what.

The team debuted a new starter at quarterback in Blake Frohnapfel, gave significant snaps to freshman J.T. Blyden at running back and rotated in a cast of new receivers which included Jalen Williams, Alex Kenney and Marken Michel. Both the offense and defense debuted completely new schemes as well.

Once the dust settled in the 30-7 loss to the Eagles, it was clear the Minutemen are far from a finished product. Here are some takeaways from the season opening performance.

UMass lacked complementary football

Throughout training camp, UMass coach Mark Whipple mentioned he was encouraged about the improving relationship between the offense and defense. He said the two entities needed to trust each other and noted that when he first arrived in the spring, he didn’t see much of that. It’s a slow process but he said the foundation of trust is forming.

On Saturday, both Whipple and Minutemen safety Joe Colton both acknowledged the team didn’t do a strong enough job playing complementary football.

Despite allowing 211 rushing yards in the first half, UMass held the Eagles to just a pair of field goals entering halftime and trailed just 6-0. Nearing the end of the half, Minutemen cornerback Randall Jette picked off BC quarterback Tyler Murphy and returned it back to the 19-yard line. But UMass’ offense followed that sequence with an intentional grounding penalty, an incompletion and a 4-yard reception on 3rd and 25, losing 11 yards in the process. Kicker Blake Lucas missed the ensuing field goal attempt and UMass walked away with no points despite prime field position.

In the second half, the Minutemen scored their first touchdown of the year on an explosive 77-yard touchdown pass from Frohnapfel to receiver Tajae Sharpe. It was the first inkling of momentum all day for UMass and, had the team followed it up with a defensive stop, the Minutemen were in prime position to climb back into the game trailing just 20-7. But Boston College promptly drove down the field and scored on a long touchdown pass which wiped out any momentum and put the game on ice.

Moving forward, UMass will need both the offense and defense to maintain momentum and aid each other throughout the game. On far too many occasions, the Minutemen followed up lengthy Boston College drives with quick offensive drives which chewed minimal amounts of clock.

WANTED: Defensive depth 

UMass’ defense was on the field for 45 plays in the first half. That total was too high and it showed in the second half, as the Minutemen couldn’t muster the energy to keep delivering the type of crucial third down stops which they showcased in the first half. Part of the issue was that UMass simply doesn’t have the depth along its defensive front to compete against physical offenses with size.

The Minutmen defensive line of Peter Angeh, Robert Kitching and Sha-Ki Holines wore down early and lacked size to hold their gaps against Boston College. UMass tried to rotate larger bodies — senior Daniel Maynes and 264-pound defensive end Leo Krizanovic rotated in — but they couldn’t find a combination to consistently plug the line of scrimmage. That placed an emphasis on the linebackers to make tackles and UMass rotated in its subs in Da’Sean Downey, Steve Casali and Vondell Langston, but far too often were linebackers making tackles seven and eight yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Whipple thought his team wore down in the second half and said the offense needed to do a better job complementing the defense. With the way the roster is currently constructed, UMass can’t afford to have its defense out as much as it was on Saturday.

Leaky protection for Frohnapfel

At first glance, Frohnapfel’s stat line of 9-for-22, 147 yards, one touchdown and one interception is underwhelming at best. And early in the game, Frohnapfel overthrew at least four deep passes, just missing his intended receiver. It appeared to shake his confidence as the game progressed.

But far too often, Frohnapfel was asked to make a throw with a defender barreling down on him. It wasn’t uncommon to look back at Frohnapfel after a pass attempt to see him dragging himself off the turf. For a team which predicates itself on taking deep shots down the field, the pass protection needs to be stronger to allow Frohnapfel to scan the field. The offensive line as a whole struggled, as UMass didn’t muster a significant push in the run game either.

Colton, Blyden impress

It wasn’t a banner day for the Minutemen, but both Colton and Blyden impressed on an individual level. Colton found himself around the ball early and often, racking up 13 tackles. He made an impressive defensive play in the back of the end zone to disrupt Eagles receiver Shakim Phillips and negate what would have been an easy touchdown. He’s a fearless player and stuck his nose up near the line of scrimmage often in an attempt to help stop an imposing Eagles rushing attack.

Blyden is UMass’ fastest running back and assumed carries from starter Jamal Wilson, who left the game with a leg injury. Blyden carried the ball nine times for 43 yards including a 14-yard scamper around tackle. He looked comfortable and it wouldn’t surprise if his role increases as the year progresses.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli

 

Recap: Boston College trounces UMass 30-7

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

FOXBORO – Saturday’s matchup between Boston College and Massachusetts was hyped as ‘The Battle of the Bay State.’ By the end of BC’s 30-to-7 victory over the Minutemen, it was clear which team controlled the majority of the turf.

The Eagles wore out a bewildered UMass rush defense, powering up and down the field while primarily keeping the ball on the ground. Twenty-four of Boston College’s 30 points came in the second half. The Eagles compiled 511 total yards, methodically grinding to a victory in front of 30,479 fans at Gillette Stadium.

Despite controlling the ground game, Boston College entered halftime with just a 6-0 lead. The Minutemen benefited from multiple timely penalties and played strong enough in their own defensive end to hold BC to field goals.

But the Eagles opened the second half with a 13 play, 75-yard drive which ended with a Myles Willis 1-yard touchdown. Just five minutes later, BC scored again, this time thanks to a naked bootleg by quarterback Tyler Murphy, who waltzed into the end zone from only a yard away.

UMass finally got on the board late in the third quarter when Blake Frohnapfel found Tajae Sharpe for a 77-yard touchdown. Sharpe came open over the middle of the field and ran the rest of the way, shaking off Justin Simmons and stretching into the end zone.  But BC quickly answered on a 43-yard touchdown pass from Murphy to Josh Bordner on the ensuing drive, making it 27-7.

 The Good

  • Bend but don’t break: Despite BC doubling up on time of possession in the first half (20:55 to 9:05) and gaining 276 yards to UMass’ 84, the Minutemen walked into the locker room at halftime trailing just 6-0. Strong red zone defense and a few timely Eagles mistakes allowed UMass to hang around in the first half
  • Defensive secondary: Randall Jette picked off Murphy in the second quarter and Joe Colton made 13 tackles. UMass needed a strong performance out of its secondary in order to even have a shot at staving off the Eagles’ rushing attack and the defensive backs performed admirably. Colton was around the ball for a majority of the game.
  • Frohnapfel to Sharpe: Frohnapfel’s third quarter touchdown pass to Sharpe came when UMass desperately needed life. The offense faced a third and 10 and hadn’t possessed the ball much throughout the game. Sharpe came open across the middle and galloped 77 yards for the score, stretching for the final yard and barely reaching into the end zone.

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Gameday: UMass/Boston College viewing information

Photo courtesy of Daniel Malone/MassLive

Photo courtesy of Daniel Malone/MassLive

MASSACHUSETTS MINUTEMEN VS. BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES 

  • Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Massachusetts.
  • 3 p.m. EST
  • Game Preview
  • TV broadcast – ESPN 3 
  • Radio broadcast – WMUA 91.1 FM/105.5 FM WEEI (Springfield)/1440 AM WVEI (Worcester)/ 95.9 FM WATD (South Shore)/ 1200 AM WXKS (Boston, Worcester, Manchester, Providence),
  • Twitter updates: @MDC_Sports /@Mark_Chiarelli / @Andrew_Cyr

GAME NOTES

  • At least 27,000 fans have purchased tickets to the event as of Friday night, making it the largest crowd to ever see UMass at Gillette Stadium in the FBS era. The largest crowd to ever see UMass at Gillette was 32,848 when the Minutemen hosted New Hampshire for the Colonial Clash.
  • The national anthem will be performed by Michelle Brooks-Thompson, who is a native of Springfield. In 2012, she was a finalist on “The Voice” and is the wife of former UMass player David Thompson.
  • As of now, there are no notable injuries to report for UMass. Running back Lorenzo Woodley (ankle) and nose tackle Daniel Maynes (back) both returned to practice in advance of the game. Only linebacker John Robinson-Woodgett (leg) is questionable to play.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli

Game Preview: UMass hosts Boston College in “Battle of the Bay State”

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Photo by Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Saturday’s matchup at Gillette Stadium between Massachusetts and Boston College rekindles plenty of flames.

It marks only the fourth time the two programs have met on the football field since 1982. The Eagles have a 19-5 edge over the Minutemen and UMass hasn’t knocked off Boston College since a 27-0 victory in 1978.

It’s UMass coach Mark Whipple’s first game as head coach since returning to take over a program he left in 2003. He’s one of the most revered coaches in Minutemen football history and was the architect of a worst-to-first style 1998 turnaround which culminated in a Division 1-AA National Championship.

And what better way to embark on a second go-around than to do it against old friends? Well, if you ask either Whipple or Eagles coach Steve Addazio, both men would probably tell you they’d rather not have to face each other. The pair are friends off the field and have crisscrossed paths throughout their coaching journeys. Addazio’s defensive coordinator, Don Brown, coached with Whipple at both Brown and UMass in the late 1990’s as his defensive coordinator and later was the head coach at UMass from 2004-08 following Whipple’s departure.

This is Addazio’s second season with the Eagles and he led them to a 7-6 record last season. In his weekly press conference, he talked about facing a Minutemen team with a completely brand new coaching staff and, subsequently, mostly new parts on offense.

“Yeah, I mean, there’s no film,” he said.  “You’ve got new coordinators on both sides, a new coach.  You can watch a little tape from last year for personnel, but otherwise it’s hard.  We’re used to spending the week grinding out cut‑ups and watching tape, and it’s not really what you can do, so it’s an uncomfortable feeling.”

And of course, Saturday’s 3 p.m. kickoff signals the official return of football season and ends our longstanding national nightmare — aka the offseason — for a long while.

Change at the top

There’s also plenty of unfamiliarity for both programs, starting right at the top at the quarterback position. Both UMass and Boston College will start graduate student quarterbacks who transferred into the program this past year, with the Minutemen starting Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel and the Eagles starting former Florida product Tyler Murphy.

Murphy will use his final year of eligibility at Boston College under Addazio, who originally recruited Murphy to Florida when he was a coach at Florida. The 6-foot-2, 213 pound quarterback will replace Chase Rettig, who started all but four possible games in his Eagles career.

Frohnapfel edged out A.J. Doyle in a training camp battle for the starting quarterback position and has two years of eligibility remaining.

Who’s who? 

Both teams have an array of new faces at the skill positions.

UMass will feature three new wide receivers in addition to returning receiver and go-to target Tajae Sharpe. Both Jalen Williams and Alex Kenney transferred into the program while Marken Michel returns to UMass after leaving the program last season. Williams a product of Dean College and will have two years of eligibility remaining while Kenney is a graduate student using his final year of eligibility after playing at Penn State. Wide receiver is the Minutemen’s deepest position and all should share snaps behind Sharpe.

The Eagles will replace 2013 Heisman candidate running back Andre Williams, who now plays for the New York Giants while also replacing leading receiver Alex Amidon, who graduated. Boston College has a slew of running backs led by Myles Willis and Tyler Rouse and will feature graduate students Josh Bordner and Shakim Phillips at receiver.

What you talkin’ bout Willis? 

Myles Willis is first on the depth chart at running back for Boston College and has the enviable task of following Williams’ footsteps. Willis is a formidable kick returner and was eight in the Atlantic Coast Conference in total yards per game last year with 101.4. He rushed 60 times last season for 346 yards and two scores and stands at 5-foot-9, 203 pounds.

He’ll rush behind an offensive line which has a bevy of experience and girth. Every Eagles starting offensive linemen is 294 pounds or heavier and the group has combined for 84 career starts. It’s Boston College’s interior line of left guard Bobby Vardaro, center Andy Gallik and right guard Harris Williams which is most potent. Every starter on the offensive line is a graduate student.

Analysis

Addazio is completely correct in the sense that it’s incredibly difficult to get a feel on what we should expect from the Minutemen. At quick glance, the Eagles enter 2014 with a tried-and-true method of methodically running the ball and wearing down the opposition. Boston College’s offensive line has a significant advantage in both size and experience over UMass’ defensive line of Peter Angeh, Robert Kitching and Sha-Ki Holines. One would assume that the Minutemen will need to flawlessly execute their defensive assignments and receive strong contributions from role players if they want to last four quarters with the Eagles.

But both team’s offenses are question marks. UMass has the Whipple effect — he’s found offensive success wherever he goes — and outside of Tajae Sharpe, essentially a brand new offense. One of the staple’s of training camp was the ability to connect on the long pass, something UMass couldn’t do last season. If the Minutemen can catch fire early, it may force Boston College to throw the ball more than they’d like with a quarterback in Murphy who has a shaky pedigree as a passer.

Ultimately, Boston College should be capable of outlasting UMass despite significant improvements on both sides of the ball from the Minutemen, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if this game is closer than initially presumed.

Gillette Stadium

The rivalry game will be held at Gillette and is designated as a home game for UMass. Currently, over 21,000 tickets have been sold and both programs are optimistic that number will rise with walk-up sales on the day of the game.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at mchiarel@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli

Wilson eager to continue to prove himself as UMass prepares for Boston College

Collegian file photo by Maria Uminski

Collegian file photo by Maria Uminski

The Massachusetts football running back competition ultimately lasted throughout nearly all of training camp. It was the most hotly contested of any positional battle on the roster and, ultimately, was awarded to steady junior running back Jamal Wilson.

A competition as deep as the running back competition breeds depth and numerous players capable of handling the responsibility at running back. That wasn’t lost on Wilson or his coach Mark Whipple, who noted that the team will try to rotate backs as much as possible despite noting in the past that his preference is to have one running back who takes the majority of the snaps.

” We’ll let them all have some looks,” Whipple said. “Lorenzo (Woodley) is a little healthier and Jordan (Broadnax) has  been healthier this past week and J.T. (Blyden) keeps impressing so we’ll just kind of play it.”

Wilson earned the majority of the reps with the starters throughout camp and will open the year atop the two-deep depth chart. But he knows — Wilson rose up the ranks last year due to injuries and ineffectiveness from other running backs above him — that the work doesn’t end there.

“I’m humbled,” he said of being named starter. “I’ll just keep working every day like I’m not the starting running back.  I want the coaches to know that I’m the best man for the job and I come out here every day and try to show that when I’m running.”

That first showcase will come against Boston College, a team which allowed opposing running backs to rush for four yards a carry in 2013.

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Recapping UMass summer training camp

Photo by Daniel Malone/MassLive

Photo by Daniel Malone/MassLive

With the Massachusetts football season set to begin on Saturday at Gillette Stadium against Boston College, it closes out the summer training camp and practice period.

It was a pivotal month of August for UMass, which saw the return of coach Mark Whipple and a complete culture change throughout the entire program. The Minutemen officially opened their brand new football performance center which is adjacent to McGuirk Stadium. They also welcomed in a number of transfers to the program and installed new offensive and defensive schemes.

Below is a complete list of our 2014 training camp coverage.

Frohnapfel named starting quarterback 

The leading story throughout the first two weeks of camp was the competition for the starting quarterback job. Ultimately, graduate student and Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel edged incumbent starter A.J. Doyle. Here’s the story on the decision as well as a story on the feeling around the team leading up to the decision.  We also caught up with A.J. Doyle following the decision.

Running backs galore 

While the quarterback competition was cut-and-dry between two competitors, the running back competition was wide open. Ultimately, the coaching staff decided to choose Jamal Wilson, who will get the start against Boston College. But there was plenty to be made about those at the position who surprised and those who are no longer with the team.

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