The Massachusetts football team officially begins preparation for its second Football Bowl Subdivision season on Monday morning when training camp gets underway from 9 a.m. until noon at McGuirk Stadium.
The first week of practice will be closed, although players and coaches will be available for interviews with reporters at the end of each session. The following weeks will open to the media and fans and the Minutemen open the 2013 season at Camp Randall Stadium to take on No. 23 Wisconsin Aug. 31.
With the team holding its first official meeting Sunday, it’s time to take a look what to watch for and some key position battle throughout training camp and heading into the regular season.
Is Mike Wegzyn the guy?
Quarterback Mike Wegzyn was given the keys to the program at a very opportune, yet challenging, time last season. Then a freshman, Wegzyn was asked to lead the Minutemen as the signal-caller in the team’s first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and he struggled greatly. The quarterback threw for 1,825 yards with a 52.6 completion percentage and threw 10 interceptions to just six touchdowns. UMass had a 1-10 record in his starts and finished 1-11 overall.
The outlook on Wegzyn looks much different now than it did entering spring practice, however. Before spring, Wegzyn and A.J. Doyle were set to duke it out for the starting job in 2013. But Wegzyn created some serious separation between himself and Doyle with his performance of the spring, and made a significant impression on UMass coach Charley Molnar. Molnar said that if he had given out a Most Improved Player award, it would’ve gone to Wegzyn.
The consensus is that Wegzyn will be the Week 1 starter. But it will be interesting to see if all of this hype translates onto the field in training camp. Could Doyle still have a chance to overtake Wegzyn before the season starts? As of right now, it seems unlikely. If Wegzyn really is what he is expected to be, there’s no one on the UMass roster that will catch him. But if he struggles in camp, Molnar has shown isn’t afraid to hand the keys to Doyle after starting him in the final game of the regular season last year.
How will Charley Molnar handle his running backs?
The kind of production and impact Michael Cox had on UMass will certainly be missed. But once the Minutemen get a look at the abundance of young, talented running backs that hit the practice field on Monday, they’ll move on pretty quickly. UMass comes into camp with a deep running back corps and a good mix of young and veteran talents ready to fill the void left by Cox.
Given his experience, junior Jordan Broadnax is expected to be the starter this season. Broadnax saw action in 11 games as a backup and ran for 159 yards and a touchdown on 53 attempts, averaging 2.3 yards per carry. It’s unlikely his starting job is a lock, however. The Minutemen signed highly-touted back Lorenzo Woodley, who chose UMass over some of the top programs in the country, in a surprising decision this spring and could very well give Broadnax a run for his money if Woodley impresses in camp the way he did at Christopher Columbus High School. The depth and young talent goes well beyond Woodley, though. Redshirt freshman Stacey Bedell along with others could also challenge for some playing time this season.
The intrigue at running back isn’t just over who is there, but how Molnar plans to use them. With all this talent, it’s unlikely that Broadnax will carry the load by himself while a handful of other potential stars are watching from the sidelines. Molnar will likely give certain roles to specific players, whether it be Broadnax at the lead back, while using Woodley, Bedell or Jamal Wilson in short-yardage situations, passing-catching roles out of the backfield or blocking duties on passing downs.
Regardless of what Molnar does, he could get pretty creative if he wants to, expect to see a little bit of each back sprinkled into the offensive system, especially with so much promise at the position.
Who will emerge on the offensive line?
When Molnar was asked about the key to improving a conference-worst offense in 2013, he pointed specifically to better play from the offensive line. Not that much better, though. He said that simply average play from the line will be enough to improve the entire offense. With better blocking, Wegzyn will have more time to throw the ball and the running backs will have more space to break out into the open field.
The offensive line was injury-riddled from the first game of the season last year, leading to such struggles. The Minutemen were forced to rotate an array of freshmen into the interior positions, giving the team an incredibly inexperienced group up front. UMass will get a major spike in the experience department not only from a group of freshman with game experience becoming sophomores, but also from fifth-year transfer David Osei from Rutgers and Josh Bruns from Glendale Community College.
The Minutemen will be much deeper in 2013 as well — UMass also brings in five freshmen — which should erase any excuses for injuries. However, there are still plenty of question marks. The tackle positions should be solidified with preseason Outland Trophy candidate Anthony Dima on the left side and Osei on the right, but the guard and center positions are still very much up in the air. Bruns will likely step in and see some time due to his experience in community college, while sophomores such as Michael Boland and Al Leneus, who both saw significant time as freshmen last year, could also earn spots with a good showing in camp.
The key to the offensive line this season will be finding stability and getting a solid group of five players that could that can start in all 12 games, while giving some younger players a shot on a rotation basis or in lopsided games. This kind of stability begins in training camp and it will likely be something that gets addressed first thing Monday.
How to replace the loss of defensive leaders Thellen and McIntyre?
Darren Thellen and Perry McIntyre were not only the heart and soul of the UMass defense last season, they were also the statistical leaders. McIntyre and Thellen were first and second on the team in tackles, respectively, while Thellen grabbed a team-high three interceptions.
Now the challenge is filling that void in multiple aspects. This is a young defense coming into camp that has a number of players who made starts as freshmen last year. Those players will likely be asked to fill in particularly from a skill standpoint, while veterans such as Stanley Andre and Kevin Byrne will be called upon to assume that leadership role that is missing without Thellen and McIntyre.
Defensive backs Randall Jette, D’Metrius Williams and Khary Bailey-Smith all made a strong first-impression on their teammates as freshmen last year, with Jette and Bailey-Smith picking off two passes apiece, while linebacker Kassan Messiah looks to build off of a remarkable freshman campaign. At least from a talent perspective, Messiah will emerge as a leader on this defense if he can make another stride as a sophomore. The linebacker finished third on the team with 65 tackles in just nine games played and could be the key to shutting down some of the talented running backs the Mid-American Conference has to offer.
Certain players that are more prepared to be leaders will naturally come in and assert themselves from Day 1. The Minutemen could use a pair of underclassmen to be willing to take on the role and help bring an overall growth in maturity from the entire defense as well. The defense lost a pair of important talents and leaders, but still have the potential to be a strength on the team with the right leadership in place. The talent and potential is certainly there, but it will be up to the veterans and the younger players to take that unique experience from last season’s young defensive corps and run with it.
Can promising young players become leaders in second season?
This topic in a way builds off the point above, but has a greater emphasis on the rising sophomores coming into 2013. The Minutemen are heavily comprised on underclassmen — 71.1 percent to be specific — so they will likely have a majority of their starters be underclassmen this season.
The sophomores had the luxury of being freshmen in a transition year, giving them the ability to play on a weekly basis and quickly learn what it takes to be an FBS football player. Remember, these were the first players to be recruited to play at the Division 1-A level and it is they who are expected to turn a painful transition into a positive experience. It’ll be up to second-year players such as Wegzyn, Messiah and others to show the 36 freshmen the ropes and assume leadership roles.
There are currently more sophomores than upperclassmen combined, so it’ll ultimately be their decisions that will dictate what happens with the future of this program. UMass probably won’t come close to making a bowl game in either of its next two years, but with that first FBS class taking the field as seniors, it’ll be up to them to take the next big step towards make this program relevant.
It all starts Monday in training camp.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.