UMass offense ready to take shape under Mark Whipple

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014
AMHERST — After being a seldom-used wide receiver as a freshman and a lightly used tight end as a sophomore, junior Rodney Mills appears to have found a niche and an opportunity for playing time with the UMass football team.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gainesville, Florida, native is listed atop the depth chart at fullback, a position that didn’t exist in former coach Charley Molnar’s spread offense.

But new coach Mark Whipple not only has fullbacks, but has a history of relying on them. Matt Jordan and Pete Cariello had solid careers as blockers, pass catchers and ball carriers during Whipple’s first stint leading the Minutemen.

“What I’m doing right now is what he’s had people do in the past. They’ve had great success doing it,” Mills said. “I’m looking for the same thing. As long as it helps the team, I’m going to do it.”

Whipple said the coaching staff wanted to find a way to get Mills, who will also line up at tight end at times, on the field.

“He’s a really good player. We were just trying to find a role for him. We were a little thin at fullback, but we’ll move him around some,” Whipple said. “He really brings a great spirit to the offense and a competitive nature. He missed a scrimmage and I don’t think the offense was the same. He’s a guy that can make some plays and brings a little more of a presence than some of the other guys.”

Mills was impressed at how well Whipple’s offense seemed tailored to a team made up mostly of players he didn’t recruit.

“This offense fits everybody well. Coach Whip had a game plan coming in,” Mills said. “He knew our strengths and weaknesses and did a real good job putting everybody in the right place to excel.”

Offense spotlight

The rest of the offense breaks down as follows:

Quarterback — As a Marshall freshman, Blake Frohnapfel was neck and neck in a competition with Rakeem Cato, who was last year’s Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year. UMass is hoping the 6-foot-6 junior can take an offense that struggled to move the ball the past two years and make it effective.

From the moment Frohnapfel’s transfer to UMass was announced, most people presumed he’d be the starter. While Frohnapfel won the job, junior A.J. Doyle kept the competition alive longer than most people expected, making Whipple more confident in UMass’ depth at the position.

Austin Whipple, who transferred from Penn State when his father was hired, is the No. 3 quarterback. True freshman Ross Comis has the coaching staff excited about the future, but he’ll almost certainly redshirt.

Running back — Junior Jamal Wilson is the starter and sophomore Lorenzo Woodley is the backup, but No. 3 is up for grabs. Whipple has sung the praises of freshman J.T. Blyden, junior Jordan Broadnax and sophomore Shadrach Abrokwah at different times. At least early in the season expect several players to get carries.

Wilson isn’t fast, but makes up for it by being tough to tackle. His rise from fourth to first string last year was at first due to other players’ injuries, but he’s played well enough to win the starting job out of camp.

Fullback — Mills is listed here on UMass’ official two-deep, but he’s more of an H-back. Redshirt freshman DaQuan Mack will fill the more traditional bruising, blocking fullback role, especially in short-yardage situations.

Receiver — If there is a player poised for a breakout season, it might be junior Jalen Williams. The 6-foot-3 receiver from Georgia by way of Dean Junior College was among UMass’ best players in spring practice. He emerged from a sizable collection of receivers to earn the starting job alongside junior Tajae Sharpe, who is the Minutemen’s leading returning receiver.

Redshirt freshman Shakur Nesmith, who was a standout in preseason last year before getting injured, could be a threat in the red zone at 6-foot-4. Alex Kenney, a fifth-year transfer from Penn State is the fastest of the bunch and could be the fastest player on the roster. He’ll likely get a chance to establish himself as a deep threat.

Tight end — Junior Brandon Howard had been mostly an afterthought under Molnar, but the fresh start and the graduation of Rob Blanchflower opened a starting job and he’s filled the void. Junior college transfer Jon Denton, who is more of a blocker than a pass catcher, will see regular time as well. Junior college transfer Jean Sifrin, who has yet to practice as his eligibility is sorted out, could be a factor if he gets the chance.

Offensive line — Junior Matt Sparks is the unit’s leader and anchor at center. Sophomores Tyrell Smith (6-5) and Elijah Wilkinson (6-4) are both listed at 315 pounds giving UMass some bulk at left and right tackle, respectively. Sophomore Fabian Hoeller (6-3, 295), who could slide to center if anything happened to Sparks, will start at left guard, while redshirt junior Josh Bruns (6-5, 303) will play right guard.

Sophomores Tyshon Henderson (6-7, 339) and Michael Boland (6-7, 315) both figure to see regular action.

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