Welcome to the first of our opponent previews for the upcoming season. Instead of simply going week-by-week, we’re going to to go in order of the easiest to toughest opponents on the schedule, beginning with what we feel will be the easiest opponent of 2012, the UMass Minutemen.
When the Minutemen visited Ann Arbor in 2010 and nearly pulled off a shocking upset, both teams were drastically different. Michigan is back on track with new headman Brady Hoke, while UMass is looking to begin anew as an FBS school with a head coach who is very familiar with Michigan, former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. Molnar was a longtime Brian Kelly assistant at Cincinnati and Central Michigan before ND. In addition to serving as OC, he was a quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. His Cincinnati passing attacks were among the best in the nation, so you can bet he’ll be looking to install a similar passing attack in Amherst. He’s installing a spread attack similar to what the Irish run, but the biggest questions at this point is whether or not he has the personnel he needs and how quickly they will pick up the new system.
Junior quarterback Kellen Pagel looks to be the starter despite a lackluster 2011 in which he passed for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns but also threw nine interceptions. However, the spot isn’t locked up. He’ll have to fight off redshirt freshman Mike Wegzyn, who won the starting job in spring practice, and sophomore Brandon Hill, who started three games last season.
At running back, you will be familiar with Michael Cox the likely starter after transferring from Michigan. Jordan Broadnax, who had just 35 carries last season, saw the most time in the spring game and will also share carries.
The biggest concern offensively for the Minutemen is the receiver position which returns just two players who caught a pass last season, senior Chase Danska and sophomore Marken Michel. They combined for just four receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown. Incoming freshman Trey Dudley-Giles will be counted on to step in and produce right away.
Four starters return on the offensive line – Quinton Sales, Nick Speller, Anthony Dima, and Stephane Milhim – though they’ll be learning a new no-huddle spread offense this season. Offensive line coach Ron Hudson said that their progress will determine how the the offense functions.
“If they don’t pick it up, we don’t function,” Hudson said in spring practice. “We’re no-huddle and we’re up-tempo. Not only do they have to get it, but they have to get it fast.”
On the defensive line, UMass returns six players who played in eight or more games a year ago, so they’re an experienced bunch. Junior defensive end Brandon Potvin, who recorded 4.5 tackles for loss last season, leads the group.
|Aug. 30||@ UConn|
|Sept. 15||@ Michigan|
|Sept. 22||@ Miami (OH)|
|Oct. 6||@ Western Michigan|
|Oct. 20||Bowling Green|
|Oct. 27||@ Vanderbilt|
|Nov. 3||@ Northern Illinois|
|Nov. 10||@ Akron|
|Nov. 23||Central Michigan|
The linebackers are probably the most talented group on the team, led by senior Perry McIntyre who racked up 84 tackles last season. Outside linebacker Chad Hunte had 47.5 tackles last year, while Tim Brandt and D.J. Adoeba will push for playing time as well. Tyler Homes is gone and his shoes will be tough to fill, but the switch to a 4-3 should help.
The secondary, is led by senior safety Darren Thellen who picked off five passes and recorded 55 tackles a year ago. Corners Kirk Nelms and Antoine Tharpe also return and freshman Randall Jette will see the field as well. Molnar likes what he saw from the unit in the spring.
“It’s one of the strong points of our football team,” Molnar said. “Not a lot of depth, but we have some really good players back there. Very solid. Good tacklers. Good coverage skills.”
The kicking game was less than stellar last season, hitting 8-of-14 field goals and averaging just 35.8 yards per punt. In comes Blake Lucas and Jeremy Stinson to claim the kicking duties. Junior college transfer Colter Johnson will also battle for the punting duties with Jeff Strait and Brendan Levengood.
UMass averaged just 25.2 points per game last season while giving up 27.9. The total offense ranked 58th in FCS while the defense was even worse at 64th. Molnar should be able to garner some improvement, but just how quickly will depend on how the offense picks up the spread. Michigan fans know just how tough that is in Year 1, so the folks in Amherst should be careful not to expect instant success. The defense should be experienced enough to keep the Minutemen in some games, but not against Michigan’s high-powered offense. The move to the FBS and the Mid-American Conference will elicit some growing pains for the Minutemen, but Molnar has assembled a quality staff that will get them headed in the right direction. Just not this year. Three or four wins will probably be considered a success in 2012.