For the Massachusetts football team, football is fun again.
It seems like a strange thought, that the highest echelon of collegiate football players could seemingly become disenchanted with a sport they can play at an exceptional level. But at UMass Media Day, player after player flashed the same smile and showed similar amounts of excitement and joy about playing the game of football again.
“You would think it’s simple, but our mojo changed a little bit,” safety Joe Colton said at his locker.
“Everyone’s happy to go into camp but having a new coach that is more of players coach and is a team guy, everyone is much more excited about that.”
By now, the story is evident. Mark Whipple has returned as the coach of the Minutemen, reigniting the flame of a passionate fan base and, more importantly, reigniting his players. Countless members of the team have been receptive to a coaching style which is more conducive to college students than the previous regime. At practice, UMass plays music throughout the entire practice over two speakers placed at the center of camp. It’s not uncommon to see a group of defenders dancing along after a strong play or during a break in the action.
“When coach Whipple first came, one of the things he implied on us at first was that football is a game and you got to have fun while playing the sport of football,” tackle Tyrell Smith said.
“He wants us to compete and all but he wants us to have fun while competing. We have pretty good relationships here.”
The camaraderie and excitement bounced off the walls of the team’s brand new locker room inside the UMass Football Performance Center, which was opened to the media for the first time at Media Day. Players milled around cracking jokes, singing to various songs, playing music and attempting to “photo bomb” as many photos as possible. As an outsider, it simply seemed like a fun environment to be around.
It was also apparent it was an attribute missing from last year’s team.
“The last two years, a lot of players on this team lost the love of the game of football because of all the little things we were getting in trouble for,” linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox said.
“Since coach Whipple’s come back, everyone’s just found that love again. Everyone enjoys going to practice and competing every day. Before we didn’t have that, everyone dreaded going to practice, dreaded going to film. Nowe we just want to get better and do good for this team because coach Whipple brings that energy for us.”
Whipple’s spoken about the importance of creating a level of respect for teammates among his players. It’s clear the team is feeding off each other’s energy early.
“(We’re) just finally understanding each other,” wide receiver Marken Michel said.
“(We’re) understanding the way each other plays and understanding we have a whole bunch of different personalities on the team and embracing that. Learning from others and going out there and remembering we love the game of football. (We’re) just bringing the love back.”
The team has also raved about the new performance center, a spacious two-story building solely for the football team. The Minutemen have a brand new locker room, it includes a weight room and multiple therapy pools and also includes a players lounge. All of the coaches offices are also located in the building, making it easy to conduct team meetings. Unlike last year, the program now operates under a centralized roof.
“It’s an honor honestly,” Santos-Knox said. “Being in that old building, you really, really, really appreciate this building a lot more. We saw the worst of the worst as I’d like to say because it wasn’t that good of a building and now we’re here and it’s just an honor. It’s one of the greatest buildings I’ve ever been in.
Colton echoed those thoughts.
“This is the new phase of UMass football,” he said. “You go from having a locker room with a rug that has mold underneath it to a locker room and training facility with hydro-therapy pools and a brand new weight room.”
We got a chance to ask a few of the players where they enjoy eating when not at the performance center, and the answers were intriguing.
Santos-Knox and Colton both selected Wings Over Amherst, with Santos Knox saying: “I order there probably every day. I love (Wings Over Amherst), they take all my money.”
Cornerback Jackson Porter enjoys stopping at the Baby Berk food trucks located around campus after a long day. Michel said if you’re looking for a breakfast sandwich, you have to stop at Burgers 101.
Smith lamented the uncertain future of Blue Wall, a campus dining center located in the Campus Center which is currently under construction. Luckily for him, “(Berkshire Dining Commons) is always on its p’s and q’s.”
Mark Chiarelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli