Burning questions for beginning of UMass spring practices

  • Walt Bell, who has been hired as the new UMass football head coach, speaks during a press conference, Dec. 5 at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center at UMass. The Minutemen open spring practice on Tursday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2019 9:35:53 PM

AMHERST — It’s been 104 days since Walt Bell was introduced as UMass’ new football coach.

On Tuesday, the public will get its first glance at Bell working with the Minutemen.

From the moment he was hired, Bell set his sights on recruiting and securing a signing class that would fit his style. That process took up most of his first two months and he admitted he wanted to push spring practice back as far as possible.

But the day has come for Bell to take command of UMass football on the field with the first of 15 spring practices Tuesday at 4 p.m. at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. The team will practice Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday the next five weeks, culminating in the annual spring game at 11 a.m. on April 20.

Here are four questions for fans to ponder as Bell opens practice for the first time.

What effect will the winter strength and conditioning period have on the team?

A quick look at Matt Shadeed’s social media will tell any fan how much the Minutemen have improved in the weight room this winter. According to the pictures the new UMass strength coach has posted, the team is in much better physical shape than before, but that doesn’t translate to better performances.

UMass lost most of its big contributors from last season on both sides of the ball, so new players will have to fill that productivity. A good start in winter workouts is an excellent first step, but that doesn’t always translate into the football skills required on the field.

Who will take the next step for UMass on defense?

There are a lot of questions about what defensive coordinator Aazaar Abdul-Rahim’s scheme will look like, but UMass still needs the players to execute it. The Minutemen lost six key contributors from last season, most notably middle linebacker Bryton Barr.

There is not a lot of experience returning for UMass — defensive end Jake Byczko and cornerback Isaiah Rodgers lead the way in that category — so someone will need to rise up for the Minutemen. This will be especially important in the secondary, where three of the four starters from last season have departed. That position group is one of the thinner spots on the roster and a place where younger players will need to elevate their level quickly.

The new defense will also put a lot of pressure on the linebackers, an area of weakness last year for the Minutemen. Outside of Barr, UMass didn’t get a lot of consistency from the linebackers until Jarrel Addo returned midway through the year. But both of those guys have left, leaving Chinedu Ogbonna as the lone returning starter in the position group.

How will the Minutemen deal with the losses on the interior offensive line?

Last year, the veterans anchored the unit from the middle. However, senior guards Jake Largay and Lukas Kolter have graduated and center Derek Dumais opted to transfer out of the program. That leaves a hole between last year’s starting tackles Larnel Coleman and Ray Thomas-Ishman for the Minutemen to fill.

Jaylen Larry performed well in spot duty at center last season and Mike Yerardi was in the mix at guard as well the past few seasons. Incoming junior college transfer Bryce Wade is a versatile lineman, too, who could help the Minutemen. However, teams need more than five offensive linemen to succeed in this age of college football, and the Minutemen don’t have any other experienced options.

Bell has stated the running game will be a big part of the UMass offense this season, which means the offensive line will be critical to the Minutemen’s success.

How open is the quarterback competition?

UMass had a tremendous luxury last season with two redshirt senior quarterbacks. The Minutemen even got “lucky” with how much they had to use Michael Curtis last year due to injuries.

However, there’s a new offensive mind in town and a new — arguably simpler — playbook to learn. Curtis’ experience should give him the advantage heading into the spring, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be the starter at Rutgers in August.

Bell has a chance to evaluate both of the young quarterbacks UMass signed last year plus Randall West could move his way up the depth chart. UMass also signed two more quarterbacks in February who might make a run at the starting job when they arrive on campus this summer.

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