UMass, UConn set to kick off Thursday in season opener

Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012
GCo Related stories: UMass starting lineup, Previous UMass coaching debuts, Sophmores to play key roles for UConn

AMHERST - Charley Molnar has been so eager for his first game as a head coach that he's not only prepared one pregame speech, but multiple inspirational addresses for his University of Massachusetts squad. Sometime before tonight's game against Connecticut, he'll choose one.

"I've got a couple," Molnar said smiling. "I haven't decided which one to go with. I'll wait until the time is right to decide which one to go with."

Molnar's debut is just one of many happening tonight, including UMass' as a Bowl Subdivision program.

Sixteen different UMass freshmen (10 true, six redshirt) are on the team's two-deep depth chart on offense and defense, and several others could make their debuts on special teams.

"We didn't go into the season saying we're going to play all freshmen to build for the future," Molnar said. "We're playing every game to win. But they're the best players at the position. That's why they're playing."

None of those rookies will get more attention than quarterback Mike Wegzyn, who takes over under center with last year's starter Kellen Pagel out with post-concussion symptoms.

"I definitely feel prepared," Wegzyn said. "All the work that we've done leading up to now has really helped. I'm ready to step out onto the field and get going. I'm more excited now than anything. I can't wait for that first snap."

Time & location: 7:30 p.m., Rentschler Field (40,000), East Hartford, Conn.

Records: UMass was 5-6 last year. UConn was 5-7.

Last week: Opening game for both teams

All-time series: UMass 36-32-2

Last meeting: UMass 62, UConn 20, Nov. 29, 1999

TV/Internet: SNY, online ESPN3.com, links can be found at umassathletics.com

Radio: WWEI-FM (105.5); WTIC-AM (1080)

When UMass has the ball: UMass has a new system, a new quarterback, new running backs and a set of receivers that are mostly new. Molnar has promised a no-huddle, spread offense. The finer points remain to be seen.

Don Brown-led defenses always blitz and facing a rookie quarterback only makes it more likely.

"That's what I'm expecting. They're going to see a new quarterback, a young team and I think they're going to try to get after us," Wegzyn said. "That's what I would do if I was a defensive coordinator going against us. They like to bring it. I'm ready to go. I can't wait to get it going."

Senior defensive end Trevado Williams led the Huskies with 12.5 sacks last year.

Cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson will usually cover an opponents' top receiver, but it's not entirely apparent who that'll be for the Minutemen.

When UConn has the ball: Running back Lyle McCombs figures to be a challenge for the Minutemen. The speedy sophomore rushed for 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns and is on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation's best running back.

He'll line up behind a new quarterback. Sophomore Chandler Whitmer, who started his career at Illinois and transferred to Butler Community College (Kan.) before landing at UConn, will make his debut under center. He threw for 3,017 yards and 25 touchdowns last year at Butler. Sophomore QB Scott McCummings will see some action in "wildcat" formations.

Receiver Shakim Phillips, a Boston College transfer, joins senior Michael Smith, who caught 46 passes for 615 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore before being ineligible as a junior.

UMass defensive coordinator Phil Elmassian said the Minutemen were more focused on their own play than who they were stopping.

"We have to focus on us. (McCombs) is a good back," Elmassian said. "The game we play, I call it the inner game, is going to be the most important thing. They're going to be much better talented than we are. That's for damn sure. They're in the Big East for a reason. But if our kids play like they practice, it will be a lot of fun."

The Minutemen, who switched from last year's 3-4 defense to a 4-3, are far more seasoned on defense than on offense. Their entire front seven and three of their four starting defensive backs played regularly a year ago.

Senior Perry McIntyre becomes the leader at linebacker, taking the baton from graduated All-American Tyler Holmes.

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 http://www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.