UMass secondary faces challenge in first game of conference play
AMHERST - After back-to-back weeks of preparing for quarterbacks whose feet were more dangerous than their arms, the University of Massachusetts will begin conference play against one of the best pure passers in the Mid-American Conference.
Zac Dysert is second all-time in career yards passing (9,411) at Miami (Ohio), behind only Ben Roethlisberger (10,829).
"He's really good. It will be a challenge," UMass coach Charley Molnar said. "It'll be a different challenge than we've faced the last two weeks."
Thirty of the 32 NFL teams have scouted Dysert in either games or practices.
The Minutemen have scouted him too. The UMass secondary has been a bright spot at times this season and has already registered four interceptions. The team was looking forward to the challenge of facing a quarterback with Dysert's reputation.
"Obviously it will be a huge test as far as what we're doing. We're dealing with one of the top-notch quarterbacks in the MAC and maybe all of football," cornerbacks coach Jeff Burris said. "That's going to the test us from a technique standpoint. It's a challenge, one guys are excited about stepping up to."
Senior safety Darren Thellen agreed.
"He has a good arm, maybe the best we've seen so far, maybe all year," Thellen said. "It's going to be a big challenge, but we're definitely up for the challenge. The secondary loves to play teams that throw the ball a lot and they're definitely a team that throws the ball a lot. Our defensive line has been doing a great job getting after the quarterback. As long as they keep doing that, I think we'll be able to make big plays."
Junior safety Christian Birt had a big play last week, returning an interception 32 yards for a touchdown against Michigan. Molnar said Birt embodied what UMass hopes to be and named him a captain for Saturday.
"He was knocked down and started from the bottom this season. He's climbed his way to the top," Molnar said. "I said that's just like our football team. We've been knocked down, kind of kicked in the teeth. Now we're going to climb back out just like Christian did. He's a great example of perseverance."
GAME CAPTAINS - In addition to Birt, Molnar said running backs Alan Williams and Jordan Broadnax will be game captains.
"I've been on Alan since the day he got here. He's persevered and been resilient. Sometimes he got down on himself, but he picked himself back up," Molnar said. "Jordan has really been a key guy on special teams. There's not a lot of guys that are valuable skills guys that go and play special teams and Jordan's done a great job and I wanted to recognize him."
HEALTH - Sophomore receiver Marken Michel (arm) and senior offensive tackle Stephane Milhim (ankle) practiced some Wednesday.
"Marken did some at the beginning of practice and then he kind of faded away," said Molnar, who called Michel questionable. "Milhim did drills. I'm optimistically encouraged that he'll do more (Thursday) and we'll have him Saturday. But I can't say that until he wakes up in the morning to see how it feels."
With reserve Dalvin Battle (knee) out for the season, if Michel can't go, the dominos will move redshirt freshman Elgin Long into a position to play more.
"Elgin has been a bit player for us. Now he's going to have to become a role player," Molnar said. "Not a lead actor, but a role player, but as Saturday progresses he might have to become a lead. Those things happen in a game."
COMMITTEE MEETING - After Wednesday's practice, Molnar met with a collection of nine players. The first-year coach gets feedback from the group on everything from which uniform combination to wear to things in the locker room.
The group is made up of two seniors (Thellen and Quinton Sales), two juniors (Brandon Potvin and Rob Blanchflower), two sophomores (Ed Saint Vil and Michel), two redshirt freshmen (Randall Jette and Mike Wegzyn) and one true freshman (A.J. Doyle), who were all elected by their classmates.
"Each class voted for their representative. Two for each class. The true freshmen have a non-voting member," said Molnar, a political science major at Lock Haven University. "We don't meet very often."
The players appreciated the opportunity to give input.
"It means a lot that he cares what we have to say," Thellen said.
Matt Vautour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at http://www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.