COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2011 PRESEASON TOP 25
MAC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Charley Molnar, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Kruczek | DEF. COORDINATOR: Phil Elmassian
Among the many changes for the UMass football program as it makes the jump to the FBS ranks is its offensive system. The Minutemen are trying to convert from their pro-style set to a spread, no-huddle attack under new coach Charley Molnar, who guided a similar system as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. With four BCS conference teams (Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan and Vanderbilt) on its schedule as well as teams from the high-scoring MAC, UMass could struggle to score enough points to keep up.
The Minutemen are deep and experienced on the offensive line, but thin and green at the skill positions. Junior quarterback Kellen Pagel returns to the MAC after starting his career at Bowling Green, where he couldn’t earn consistent playing time in two seasons. He battled injuries and inconsistency in his first year starting at UMass and will have to improve if he wants to remain the starter. Marken Michel is the only wide receiver with more than one career reception (three) as the Minutemen will be counting on newcomers to make immediate contributions. Redshirt freshman tight end Brandon Howard looked like a favorite target for Pagel in the spring.
The running game is similarly uncertain. Fifth-year Michigan transfer Michael Cox, who was rarely used in Ann Arbor, could get a chance to see regular carries right away at tailback. Senior Alan Williams and sophomore Jordan Broadnax impressed the new coaching staff in the spring.
Phil Elmassian is the Minutemen’s third defensive coordinator in the past three seasons. He’ll return UMass to a 4-3 front after one season as a 3-4. If the Minutemen can stay healthy, and their FCS success can translate to the MAC level, UMass could have a credible defense right away with eight returning starters.
Senior Perry McIntyre will likely be the leader from his middle linebacker spot. He had 116 tackles last year and led the team in sacks (6.5) and tackles for a loss (11.5).
Hafis Williams, a transfer nose tackle from Notre Dame, will strengthen an already deep and experienced defensive line.
Senior safety Darren Thellen, who had five interceptions and 68 tackles, is the top returner in the secondary. Junior Antoine Tharpe, a third-year starter, is a promising talent at cornerback. Still, the defensive backfield will have to raise its play significantly to slow the MAC offenses that routinely put up considerable yardage and points.
Kicker Brendon Levengood and punter Jeff Strait were both inconsistent last year and both figure to be challenged by junior college transfer Colter Johnson. Brian Dowling showed promise as a true freshman on returns late in the season last year.
Under the hyper-energetic Molnar, the Minutemen are taking a unique approach to their transition to the FBS. They aren’t scheduling any FCS opponents, and every nonconference game they will play over the next few years is against a BCS conference opponent. On top of that, the Minutemen will play home games in Gillette Stadium, hoping that the allure of playing in an NFL stadium will counter the fact that “home” games will be almost 100 miles from campus.
UMass won’t be eligible for a MAC championship or a bowl appearance until 2013 as it completes its transition, but just being competitive figures to be challenge enough in 2012.