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National signing day: Walt Bell, UMass football hit goals with 2020 recruiting class

  • University of Massachusetts head coach Walt Bell applauds his special teams after they downed a George Georgopoulos punt at Carolina Coastal's two-yard line in the first quarter of the Minutemen's 62-28 loss to Carolina Coastal at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

Staff Writer
Published: 2/5/2020 7:34:58 PM

AMHERST – No matter what has come at Walt Bell in his first 14 months as UMass football coach, he has always stuck to his plan.

From the moment he interviewed for the position, Bell laid out a pathway to transform UMass into a strong, viable independent football program. He knew it would be a long journey, he knew it would be difficult, but he also knew it would make days like Wednesday more rewarding if the coaching staff could execute on their recruiting plans.

The Minutemen added six more players Wednesday, the first day of the normal signing period, bringing their total for the 2020 class to the 25-player maximum. In doing so, Bell and his staff hit every number of signees they had allotted each position while planning this class last year.

“The good news is we hit on the most immediate needs,” Bell said. “The bad news is we’ve still got more of them, but we can only sign 25 at a time. We really wanted to attack the front seven: offensive line, tight end, defensive line and linebacker. We’ve truly got to build the core of our big people knowing those are the most developmental positions in football, (so) you’ve got to do that first.”

The fact UMass had so many needs in this recruiting class also meant that many of the 25 players who signed with the Minutemen will also need to contribute early. During the live show that UMass broadcast on NESN, wide receivers coach Luke Paschall said he expected many of these freshmen to earn enough playing time that they wouldn’t qualify for the four-game redshirt rule.

Bell backed up that claim later, saying he believes as the roster is currently constructed he could envision 80 percent of this class earning significant game reps this year.

“You never truly knows,” Bell said. “We’re about to go through spring and we’ve already had unbelievable growth physically. … We’re just growing at such a good rate that you never know. Sometimes for a kid, the light comes on a little bit later than others, but I would honestly, of this 25-man class, I would foresee at least 20 of them playing as freshmen and significant reps. That doesn’t mean we’ll play them before they deserve it, but just where we are from a depth standpoint and some the attrition, I could see 20 of those kids playing significant reps for us offensively, defensively or on special teams.”

Combining the fact UMass hit its number goals for this class and found players who could contribute right away, Bell was very confident in the future of the program. He marveled at what his staff had accomplished in just a year with his first full recruiting class, but cautioned the Minutemen still needed to repeat the feat one or two more times to sustain a successful program.

And he was bold in his predictions about the impact this 2020 class would have on UMass football.

“My whole life, I’ve always been taught to undersell and overdeliver,” Bell said. “But every time I get in front of (the media), I just tell the truth. This is probably for the first time since being here, we’ve exceeded expectations. The talent level, the length, the skill, the growth potential, the academic accomplishments, the types of families, we’re going to go to a bowl game with this class. It’s going to be because of those kids and what we did over the last year. I have more resolve for what we’re going to accomplish here because of those kids and what we were able to do in 365 days.”

TIGHT END HELP — Tight end was a unique position for the Minutemen last season because of the variety of players they had on the roster at the position. Kyle Horn was a good blocker, who emerged as a pass-catching threat at times last season. Josiah Johnson was a converted quarterback who looked and played more like a big wide receiver. Meanwhile Taylor Edwards battled injuries on and off last season and didn’t become a consistent option for UMass.

Johnson will likely shift back to quarterback this offseason, leaving Edwards as one the only healthy option at the position entering spring practice who has any on-field college football experience. Bell partially addressed the depth issues by signing Georgia native Jackson Manning, who committed to the Minutemen before the December signing period opened but planned to sign in February when he made that pledge. Bell said Manning fits all of the checkmarks UMass looks for in a tight end with his size and strength as a blocker.

“From a numbers standpoint, that’s a place where we really don’t have very much volume,” Bell said. “We’re probably going to take two tight ends per class every year after this for the next few years, we just didn’t have the room in this one. But Jackson is 6-5, 235 pounds, already has the wingspan of a typical offensive lineman, so you figure he’ll be (255), (260) pounds. He’s a great in-line blocker and a kid who can truly develop into a true triple threat.”

NEW COACH — UMass had to face a little bit of adversity during the January recruiting window with the announcement that defensive coordinator Aazaar Abdul-Rahim was taking a job at Boston College. Bell said it had no impact on the Minutemen’s efforts and credited his former staff member for the manner in which he handled the change.

As for who will replace Abdul-Rahim on Bell’s staff, the coach was mum when asked about details on the process. Cato June, most recently the outside linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator at Howard, has been tagged in several posts from recruits announcing offers from UMass and he also retweeted a post from the UMass Football twitter account Wednesday morning. However, Bell said he expects there will be an official announcement shortly on the new hire and any changes to the structure of the staff.

SPRING BALL — UMass will open spring practice on March 24 and practice for the next five weeks every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday leading up to the spring game on April 25. All practices are open to the public and begin at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10 a.m. on Saturdays.

In addition, UMass athletics director Ryan Bamford announced the Minutemen will practice one day during the spring at the school’s campus at Mount Ida College in Newton. Details about that practice, including the date, are still being worked out.

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