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UMass offensive line coming together during spring practice

AMHERST — When the University of Massachusetts offensive line gathers for positional meetings, Anthony Dima looks around and sees nobody who was in those same meetings, or even on campus, a year ago.

Not offensive line coach Dave Johnson, who was hired in February to replace Ron Hudson, who left to take the same position at Nevada. Not any of the six lineman on the roster, five of whom were still in high school last year.

If the Minutemen, who finished last in points per game (12.7) and yards per game (278.2) in the Mid-American Conference last year, want to improve, this young group will have to come together fast making this an important spring.

“We’re setting the foundation,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We’re installing things trying to take it one step at a time. Every day we’re trying to get them to a higher level than they were the day before. Every day we want them to walk off the field a little bit better.”

UMass coach Charley Molnar said the staff has challenged Dima to be an example for the younger players.

“We desperately need leadership,” Molnar said. “He’s really stepped up this spring doing things I’ve never seen him do before — rallying the guys, talking to the whole offensive unit.”

Johnson agreed.

“Anthony really needs to be the alpha dog, the guy that’s leading the pack. It’s not something that comes naturally for him. He has to consciously give effort toward being a leader,” Johnson said. “We challenge him with that and hopefully he’ll continue to do that.”

Dima said he’s embracing the role and trying to help foster chemistry within the unit.

“I’m a fifth-year senior with all freshmen and a junior college transfer. We have a very, very young O-line. I need to lead these young guys. The bottom line is we have to watch film together, hang out, lift weights together at high intensity and play hard snap to whistle. We have good chemistry. We all communicate. Everyone is hanging out together. Everyone is early for meetings. You can see it’s going to be a good group. Intensity has been up. Everyone is playing well, with high motors.”

EVOLVING FIRST STRING — Al Leneus and Matt Sparks played as true freshmen in 2012 and are getting repetitions at center, which was left vacant by the graduation of three-year starter Quinton Sales. When Sparks is at practice, he has been working with the first unit, but he has to leave midway through practice to attend a class. Leneus then gets the first string reps.

“I feel more comfortable at guard,” said Leneus, who began his career as a defensive lineman before switching midway through last season. “Learning center is taking time to adjust, especially with the snap. Once I get that down, I should be fine. I’m learning fast. It’s kind of nerve-wracking, but I’ll get up to it.”

Molnar was impressed with Leneus’ progress.

“Al is a pretty good center. He’s quick. He’s smart and he’s a fast learner. He needs some work on the accuracy of the snaps right now. It’s a new skill for him and right now he’s a little bit erratic, but he’s shown he can do the job,” Molnar said. “Like most football teams, we ask a lot of our center. They’re making a lot of calls at the line of scrimmage, trying to see things, helping a quarterback out.”

Freshman Tyrell Smith, who redshirted in the fall, worked with the first string at right tackle Tuesday, while Cameron Mock is also seeing time there. Mock graduated high school in 2012, but waited until January to enroll following a leg injury.

Junior college transfer Josh Bruns and Sam Zeff, who graduated high school early in order to participate in spring practice, have been the first string guards. Dima thought arriving early would give Zeff a considerable edge in the fall.”

“He’s going to be a step ahead of all the other freshman coming into camp,” Dima said. “He’ll have a winter and a spring under his belt. That gives him a jump.”

Molnar liked what he’s seen.

“Zeff has been running with the starting unit since the day he rolled onto campus,” Molnar said. “He’s had a lot of work. He was less noticeable today as the new guy than he was in practice number two. He’s getting better.”

OPEN PRACTICE — Practice, which is usually closed, will be open Thursday from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Fans can park inside McGuirk Stadium, entering from the south entrance (non-construction side). Seating is in the west stands (side with the press box).

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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