UMass’ initial season as an FBS Independent was a rough one, as the Minutemen won just two games with one of those victories coming courtesy of an FCS opponent. Head coach Mark Whipple has seven starters returning on each side of the ball, including a quarterback-tight end combination that could put up big numbers. The defense is switching to a 4-3 scheme under a new coordinator, but there’s one reality that the UMass can’t change – its schedule. The Minutemen are set to take on nine teams that went to a bowl game in 2016 meaning a big improvement from last year’s win total may be a little too hard to achieve this fall.
Previewing UMass Football’s Offense for 2017
When tight end Adam Breneman announced he’d be returning for his senior year, expectations for the UMass offense took a little jump. Breneman, a Penn State transfer, caught 70 passes for 808 yards and eight touchdowns, all team highs. With a history of knee problems before UMass, many people thought he might enter the NFL Draft, rather than risk another injury. But he elected to stay in Amherst, keeping the program’s top target on the roster.
Junior quarterback Andrew Ford, a transfer from Virginia Tech, will be happy to have him. Ford and Breneman were high school teammates in Pennsylvania, and their chemistry returned at UMass. Ford didn’t win the job in camp, but he established himself as the starter in Week 3 early and finished with 2,665 passing yards and 26 touchdowns (14 interceptions) while completing 60.8 percent of throws. With a full season in the offense, Ford will try to help some young wide receivers, led by junior Andy Isabella and sophomore Sadiq Palmer, develop quickly. Isabella ranked second on the team in both receptions (62) and receiving yards (801).
If the passing attack can find success, things could open up for junior running back Marquis Young (198 carries for 898 yards, four touchdowns), who struggled at times against defenses designed to slow him down last year. He’ll need to be durable behind a young offensive line as the Minutemen are thin at running back behind him.
Previewing UMass Football’s Defense for 2017
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UMass was looking for a new defensive coordinator after allowing 35.5 points and 452.7 yards per game last year. When Ed Pinkham, the architect of the defense that helped Western Michigan go undefeated prior to the Cotton Bowl, didn’t follow coach P.J. Fleck to Minnesota, UMass coach Mark Whipple pounced.
The Broncos led the MAC in scoring defense (19.8 ppg) and ranked second in total defense (353.6 ypg). They led the league with 15 interceptions. On top of that, Whipple and Pinkham worked together as coordinators at New Hampshire early in their careers, creating a comfort factor that made the hire that much smoother.
The Minutemen will switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front. A veteran group of linebackers is led by inside backer Shane Huber and Tedrick Lowery, who’ll play a hybrid linebacker/safety role.
Senior Da’Sean Downey moves to defensive end in the new alignment and will have an opportunity to build off of last year’s team-leading 6.0 sacks.
Sophomore corner Isaiah Rodgers, who impressed last year with two interceptions and 40 tackles in eight starts (11 games overall), figures to be the top cover guy in the secondary, while Pitt transfer Patrick Amara Jr. has a chance to make an immediate impact.
Previewing UMass Football’s Specialists for 2017
In three years back in Amherst, Whipple has never made it through an entire season with just one placekicker. He goes into 2017 with Mike Caggiano and Logan Laurent, who have each won and lost the job before, so it figures to remain a concern. Rodgers showed signs of stardom as a returner in 2016 and could be poised to break out.
After playing at least half of their home games at Gillette Stadium — 100 miles from campus — in their first five years in the FBS ranks, UMass will play five games in Amherst (and one at Fenway Park) in 2017. There’s more good news: The Minutemen, in their second season as an FBS independent, drop from four Power 5 opponents to two. Now the bad news: Nine of the 12 teams on the schedule played in bowl games last year. With this challenging slate, UMass will have to take considerable steps to better last year’s 2–10 campaign.
National Ranking: 128
(Andrew Ford photo courtesy of UMass Athletics)