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Analysis: UMass football struggling at key positions

  • University of Massachusetts freshman wide receiver Jermaine "OC" Johnson Jr., pursued by Shawn Featherstone of Akron, takes a 21-yard reception to the Zips' 14-yard line in the second quarter of the Minutemen's 37-29 win at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019.

Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2019 5:17:00 PM

AMHERST — The off week could not come soon enough for UMass after a rough start to the season.

What was always supposed to be a rebuilding year has been rougher than many people expected as the true lack of depth has come back to harm the Minutemen. Few things about the past two weeks have brought much optimism to the program as the growing pains continue for the younger players seeing the field.

Although UMass’ record is a disappointing 1-6 and most of the losses have been lopsided, it’s really been only a handful of position groups that have struggled. Some groups have even looked pretty good through the seven weeks, it’s just being overshadowed by the losses and issues around them. Either way, the Minutemen have five more games to help improve on where they are at the halfway point.

QUARTERBACKS — It wasn’t that long ago that Walt Bell was telling the media that he wants to play just one quarterback. Through seven games, three quarterbacks have started two games, four different quarterbacks have played and there have been in-game changes in six contests. It’s been a giant mess at the most important position in the game, and some of that blame can fall on the coaches. But the players have to accept most of the heat because none of them have played anywhere near well enough to be a Division I starter. The flashes of Division I talent are there both in practice and in the games, but the consistency of a Division I starter has not and that is the troubling sign.D

RUNNING BACKS — As thin as the Minutemen are in the backfield, it’s hard to find a fault with how Bilal Ally and Cam Roberson have played. Ally is averaging 5.5 yards per carry on 86 touches and has found ways to avoid being stopped for a loss even when the offensive line isn’t gelling well. Roberson has provided a spark out of the backfield when UMass can get the outside runs going, and he’s performed above expectations in pass protection. Kevin Brown has showed plenty of promise in his limited action as well, giving the Minutemen hope that they can find a strong running game in the years to come. B+

WIDE RECEIVERS — This talented group has been the biggest disappointments by far for UMass this season. Bell’s offense was supposed to showcase the different skills each of these receivers have and create mismatches all over the field. Yet the perimeter blocking has been lackluster for the most part, limiting the success of the screens and outside runs in the playbook. The receivers are struggling to get open and not giving their quarterback many high-percentage options to throw the ball. Outside of Jermaine ‘OC’ Johnson Jr., no receiver has been consistent week-to-week and it’s hampered the offense in a wide variety of manners. F

OFFENSIVE LINE — No position group has dealt better with the injuries and roster upheaval this season than the offensive line. For better or worse, this unit has been decidedly average all year long and it didn’t matter if it was playing three seniors or three freshmen. Helber Fagundes and Dalton Tomlinson have played decent since being introduced into the starting lineup, and the line is opening up some running lanes for the running backs to run through. Pass protection has been a struggle at times, but some of that can be blamed on the receivers not getting open or the quarterback holding onto the ball too long. Overall, though, having an average unit is quite alright for UMass given the issues elsewhere on offense. B-

DEFENSIVE LINE — If the Minutemen weren’t sending out true freshmen most of the time, it would be easier to be more critical of the front four. UMass is not getting any pressure on the quarterback, it isn’t able to gain penetration to stop plays in the backfield and the defensive line has just struggled to tackle. Teams are simply running away from Jake Byczko and paying him special attention as to not let him make an impact on the game. Some of the struggles can be attributed to a young defensive front that is simply smaller and weaker than the veteran offensive lines they are facing. Some of it has to do with the injuries that have limited depth and forced walk-ons into starting roles. But this unit has to show that it is learning from previous games, and so far that hasn’t been apparent on the field. C-

LINEBACKERS — This was the most experienced unit headed into the season and the group that was supposed to help keep the UMass defense afloat. Instead, the linebackers have struggled to tackle in space or create any penetration into the backfield, allowing opponents to run all over the Minutemen. Cole McCubrey has been this year’s Bryton Barr racking up tackles, but the linebackers around him have been inconsistent and struggling to make an impact. Even McCubrey has had his moments where he’s missed tackles or filled the wrong gap. This is the group that has disappointed the most through seven weeks, and the more the linebackers improve their play in the final five games, the better UMass will look defensively. D+

SECONDARY — Sometimes the stats are simply misleading, and that is certainly the case for this specific group of players. The Minutemen are allowing teams to complete 68 percent of their passes, gain 9.54 yards per attempt and nearly 14 yards per completion. UMass is 118th out of 130 teams when it comes to passing defense, yet it’s hard to blame the defensive backs for those statistics. Even shorthanded, the unit has found ways to make plays happen for the UMass defense when the front seven hasn’t. There have certainly been breakdowns on the back end, but that is bound to happen when the quarterback has all the time he wants to throw the ball and wait for the coverage to break down. B

SPECIAL TEAMS — The return game has been strong for both kickoffs and punts thanks to Isaiah Rodgers and has become a weapon to help jumpstart the offense. George Georgopoulos has been more consistent as a punter this season when he’s been asked to be a more orthodox punter. He’s not the best at the rugby-style kicks that the coaches sometimes ask him to execute, but he has five punts of 50-plus yards and he’s pinned teams inside the 20 on more than 30 percent of his kicks. Cooper Garcia has been solid on field goals, though, his range seems to be a bit more limited than would be ideal for college kickers. B

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.


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