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UMass football team stays positive amid winless season; Nick Speller off suspension

Massachusetts head coach Charley Molnar during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

Massachusetts head coach Charley Molnar during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Ohio Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stew Milne) Purchase photo reprints »

AMHERST — Charley Molnar has been a part of bad years before.

The first-year University of Massachusetts head coach was part of a winless team and two one-win teams as an assistant at Kent State in the 1990s, a 1-10 team at Western Michigan and an 0-11 team at Indiana State.

He said this season doesn’t feel like those.

Despite being 0-8, not only does Molnar remain confident in his program’s path and process, he said the players are too as they prepare for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Northern Illinois.

“You could have asked (those other teams), ‘What it’s going to be like 365 days from now?’ and they would say ‘Same ol’.’ Our guys have a feeling that next week is going to be better than this week,” Molnar said. “We had a number of bad years. This is a totally different feel. Those players never saw the light at the end of the tunnel, never felt like the program was turning in a positive direction. Our players do see the light at the end of the tunnel. You can tell by the way they practice, the way they prepare and the way that they take care of their business on and off the field.

“They want to be part of it, especially the young guys. They’re talking all the time about how good we’re going to be. It’s exciting to hear them saying the same things that we’re thinking,” he continued. “The guys are engaged during practice. They’re having about as much fun as you can have at this point in the season under these conditions. Even at our staff meeting today, someone said, ‘You sure wouldn’t think we’re an 0-8 football team.’”

The coaching staff showed the players a video of a stonecutter, hammering a rock over and over again. The lesson being that while the early blows show little result, they’re essential to eventual breaking.

“It’s definitely hard to keep morale. Being 0-8 is not at all where you hope to be or expect to be going into a season. We just have to keep pounding at the rock and keep working at it. We just have to have our eye on that goal. We are going to get better,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Wegzyn, who added that the team hasn’t lost faith. “As soon as people stop believing is when it falls into shambles and things turn around and go the opposite way.”

Molnar was particularly appreciative to his seniors, who won’t be around when the journey reaches that light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s a testament to all of them. They’ve stayed with the program for whatever the reasons. They could have chafed at the new staff and the way that we do our business,” Molnar said. “They could have looked to end their playing careers or looked to go somewhere else where it’s different or easier. Not only have they all stuck around, they’re all engaged and the guys who play have all been really good leaders for us.”

Molnar said that while it doesn’t always look like it on the field, this season’s struggles are the seeds of future success.

“The same guys that are struggling today, a year and two years from now, we’ll be thankful that we got all these reps under their belts. Even a year from now I think we’ll be a totally different football team. We’re a much better football team than we were at the end of summer camp. We made great strides in season. From spring ball to where we are today, is miles and miles and miles ahead,” he said. “Experience, there’s just no substitute for it. These guys being on the field, yeah we’re suffering. They’ve got to be on the field. We’re not doing it to build for next year. We’re doing it because they’re the best guys we have and in some cases almost the only guys we have. We have to live and die with their successes and their failures.”

SPELLER BACK — Senior offensive lineman Nick Speller returned to practice Wednesday, ending his academic suspension.

“It feels great to be back. I’m just happy I’ve got my normal routine back,” said Speller, who added it was hard to watch the Minutemen on the TV or the computer when he was out of action. “I’m just trying to finish this out strong. It’s always hard to watch your team lose especially when you could have made a big difference. That’s the part that hurts. It was hard to watch, but I had to watch them. That’s my team.”

Molnar wouldn’t say whether he’d start Saturday, but thought he’d play.

“He looks good. He remembered everything. He got some work at guard and he got some work at tackle. He was pretty active all day,” Molnar said. “We’ll see where he is at the end of the week, but right now I would see him playing. He made good strides academically and he’s back on track.”

Speller said he appreciated the lesson behind his suspension.

“It really does mean something. On the surface it’s like ‘Why are you on my back so hard?’ But when you look deeper into it, there’s a greater meaning,” Speller said. “The underlying message is that you can’t let anything slide. The coaches do a good job teaching us life lessons and that’s one of them. If you gotta get something done, do it. If you don’t meet the deadline, there are consequences.”

Speller hoped that the team’s younger players would learn from his mistake.

“They saw that I was out for so long. Just by that alone, it’ll have them in line,” he said. “Nobody wants to take a four-week break.”

Speller worked out on his own during the suspension, but admitted that the first day back in practice was tough.

“I can’t lie. I was a little tired. The transition from just working out in the gym to working out in a full practice, you need a few days to get back to par,” he said. “I feel like I can play in the game. But I have to get back in the swing of things.”

BROADNAX LIKELY OUT — Molnar, who earlier in the week had been optimistic that sophomore Jordan Broadnax would be able to play Saturday, will likely miss the game with an upper body injury.

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

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