Grading the Minutemen at the off week

  • University of Massachusetts senior wider receiver Andy Isabella, left, takes Denzel Irvin of Charlotte into the end zone with him on a 15-yard reception from Michael Curtis to put the Minutemen up 13-0 in the first quarter of their 49-31 win over the 49ers on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. Kevin Gutting

Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2018 12:07:25 PM

With UMass on its off week, there’s no better time than now to look at how each position group has looked through the first seven games. The Minutemen are 2-5 and it is clear no one has played up to their potential this year except for Andy Isabella — more on him later.

The obvious questions surround the defense and where one can place the blame for the leaky start to the season. However, the offense has also had its fair share of problems at times this season, especially when it comes to finishing longer drives.

Quarterbacks: C

Andrew Ford has received some bad luck this year that has affected his statistics. He’s had passes bounce off receiver’s hands and be intercepted and other deep passes dropped that would have been big gains. But Ford and Ross Comis have not moved the offense with much consistency early in games, which is a major issue.

The Minutemen’s offense has been fueled by explosion plays while also taking advantage of being handed good field position by the defense or special teams. It’s only once UMass is down three or four scores that the points start to pile up with long, sustained drives, but by then it’s simply too late. No high completion percentage or litany of touchdown passes will erase the missed chances that have hurt the Minutemen.

Running Backs: B+

UMass’ running back trio is averaging five yards per carry through seven games, a noticeable aid to the UMass offense. Marquis Young has help in the backfield from Jordan Fredericks and Bilal Ally, both of whom could easily be the feature back of the offense as well if needed.

The one issue with this group is that much of its production comes when defenses start to relax and play more conservatively with a big lead. However, UMass has a running game it can rely upon to help start drives and could add some balance to the unit in the latter part of the season.

Wide Receivers: B

There’s no doubt Andy Isabella has added at least a full letter grade to this group at the halfway point. Isabella is having an incredible season and has been one of the few bright spots for the Minutemen this season. The issue comes with the players around Isabella not performing up to their potential.

Sadiq Palmer has been largely absent from the offense with eight of his 17 catches this season coming against Ohio. Brennon Dingle isn’t consistent enough yet to make more than one or two plays per game and the rest of the group hasn’t played enough to get a good read on them.

Tight Ends: B

The strength of this group of tight ends is not catching passes, which has been evident as the group has been less of a focal point in the passing game in recent weeks. Kyle Horn’s injury played a major part in that decreased production, but it’s not how this group will be judged.

When it comes to blocking, the tight ends have actually done a pretty good job this season. They’ve laid out some impressive blocks to spring some long runs, but have also done a good job in pass protection on the rare instances they’ve been asked to block a passing play.

Offensive Line: C-

The line has taken a step in the right direction when it comes to sacks allowed — only 19 through seven games — but the pressure on the quarterback has been less than ideal as well. The unit as a whole is losing too many one-on-one battles in the trenches on passing downs, leading to Comis or Ford having to shift around in the pocket too often.

The interior of the line has been a major factor in UMass’ success on the ground, but it has done little to help protect the quarterback against the blitz. Too often, the blitzes throw off assignments and leave someone unblocked and chasing the quarterback. Left tackle Ray Thomas-Ishman has also had his fair share of struggles this season in pass protection, but he’s also normally trying to block the other team’s best edge rusher.

Defensive Line: D-

No position group has underwhelmed more than the defensive line this season. The unit has been pushed around by several teams this season and allowing running backs to gain three or four yards before being touched by a defender. The explosion plays that have hurt the Minutemen this season have largely been the result of the defensive line struggling to do its job.

The seven sacks through seven games is bad enough, but five of those came in the win over Charlotte. It’s not a coincidence that the best game the defensive line has played this season is also the only FBS win UMass has this season. Jake Byczko has played well most of the season, but the Minutemen are struggling to get the production from the other three spots on a consistent basis.

Linebackers: C-

There’s a lot to be said about Bryton Barr having 91 tackles already this season. Barr is the rudder that has steered the defense and he always seems to be involved with the big plays UMass makes on that side of the ball. Chinedu Ogbonna has been another bright spot for the unit with his energy and hustle.

However, the missed tackles and missed gap assignments from the linebackers have been costly. The litany of issues can’t be blamed solely on the linebackers, but the unit needs to be better at preventing the explosion plays that have haunted the defense this year. Fortunately for the Minutemen, senior Jarell Addo should give the position group a boost for the final five games of the season.

Cornerbacks: B

Although UMass has allowed its fair share of big passing plays, rarely has that been the fault of Lee Moses or Isaiah Rodgers. The duo along with Bakhari Goodson have been pretty good in pass coverage with each already securing one interception this season. Rodgers also has three passes defended in five games, a similar pace to Moses’ six breakups in seven starts.

Moses and Rodgers have also been solid tacklers on the perimeter while Rodgers’ speed has been vital to the defense. The cornerbacks might be the most reliable unit on the UMass defense right now, which proves the value in having experienced players at the position.

Safeties: B-

There’s a lot to like about this group of safeties with two seniors leading the way, but there’s also some mistakes that have been costly.

It was Tyler Hayes who was beat in man coverage that allowed USF’s Tyre McCants to score that 72-yard touchdown on the second play of the game. It was Brice McAllister who missed a tackle early in the third quarter that allowed the Bulls’ Jordan Cronkite to escape for a 77-yard score.

The depth at the position isn’t too stellar either except for freshman Joseph Norwood. When McAllister was banged up against Georgia Southern and Hayes was shifted to linebacker, the Eagles took advantage for some long passing plays. There have also been some blown assignments in other games that can chalked up to safeties not communicating the play well enough.

Kickers: A-

Mike Caggiano and Cooper Garcia have combined to make every extra point and 3-of-4 field goals. Garcia has looked strong all year, consistently booming kickoffs into the end zone and making his PATs and field goals look easy. Caggiano’s only hiccup was against Charlotte when he tried to tough out a groin injury and ended up doing more harm than good.

Punter: C+

It’s hard to grade a freshman punter, but there has been a lot to like about George Georgopoulos. He’s averaging roughly 40 yards per kick and has already booted three kicks more than 50 yards. However, his inexperience and inconsistency has been noticeable with several mis-hit punts costing UMass valuable yardage.

Returners: A-

Young’s kickoff return touchdown to open the Charlotte game was clearly the highlight for this group, but returns have been the strong suit of the special teams game this season. If healthy, Young is still the most dangerous threat, but freshman Samuel Emilus looked promising during his two returns against USF. But you can’t forget Isabella coming close twice already to breaking through on punt returns when the Minutemen actually force a punt.

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