Spring practice cancellation hinders progress of UMass football program

  • University of Massachusetts head coach Walt Bell walks off the field after a media timeout 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 PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/17/2020 5:48:46 PM

AMHERST — Next week, Walt Bell was supposed to get back in front of his players again and continue his methodical plan to building UMass football.

Next Tuesday was going to be the first spring practice for the Minutemen, the first of 15 opportunities to grow and mature as a program after a tumultuous first year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the school to cancel those practices among the hundreds of other sporting events affected by the outbreak. While the games will return and most of the UMass programs should be able to recover from the missed time, the football program’s progression was stunted.

This was going to be the first spring practice where the coaches and players were familiar with each other. It was supposed to be the launching pad to a brighter future, but instead it has caused athletics director Ryan Bamford to be concerned about how this virus will impact the football program for years to come.

“It’s going to effect us profoundly, I’m really worried about it,” Bamford said last week. “If I were to look at a five-year window of a head coach coming on board for their five-year contract, the second spring (is very important). You’ve already been through a full season, so second spring is arguably one of the most important time periods because everything is starting to set in.”

Bell was not made available to comment by the school, but Bamford hinted that there were changes coming to the Minutemen schematically. Some of that made sense with the reshuffling of the defensive staff after co-defensive coordinator Aaazaar Abdul-Rahim left this offseason to take a job at Boston College. Other shifts were likely dictated by an inefficient offense that didn’t eclipse 24 points in the final month of the season and ranked 126th out of 130 teams in yards per game.

While those changes might have to be altered with a shorter time frame for implementation, the bigger concern is how the team will be able to maintain the progress made in the weight room with strength coach Matt Shadeed. Throughout the winter, Shadeed helped make the Minutemen bigger, faster and stronger while continuing to set the culture within the program. Now the younger players are faced with a month or more without supervision from Shadeed or the same resources that UMass is able to provide in terms of meals and facilities.

“We were going to do a lot of – from a strategic football standpoint – we were going to change a lot of things,” Bamford said. “Now, not having the opportunity to do that and not having our guys potentially with Matt Shadeed for a month or two, we’ve been doing a great job of keeping body weights up and keeping our kids healthy and strong. Now, you go home and yeah, do I think kids will work out? Sure, but I don’t know what gyms are going to be open and they’re not going to be fed like we feed them here. I worry about that. Walt worries about that.”

UMass is not alone in having spring practice cut short by the pandemic. Bamford said he believes and hopes the NCAA will adjust the rules to allow coaches to work with the players over the summer to account for the lost practice time. If that ends up being the case, he said those sessions will be vital to helping the program continue to build toward the future and realizing the goals Bell has set out for the Minutemen.

“Whenever we get the opportunity to get them back on campus and get them supported from a fueling standpoint and a strength and conditioning standpoint ... If we’re able to have practice opportunities some point in the summer – and I don’t know if we will or won’t have those opportunities – those are going to be really, really crucial to our development,” Bamford said. “Unfortunately within the life span of this program right now and Walt being here just over a year, this was such an important period of time. We’ll do the best with what we’ve got.”

HOCKEY AWARD SEASON — UMass junior forward John Leonard won the Hockey East Three Stars Award, given to the player who earned the most points over the course of the season by being named among a game’s three stars. The Amherst native is the first Minuteman to win the award since it was first presented after the 2000-01 season.

Leonard led the nation with 27 goals and tied for the lead with six game-winners, and he was one of three players nationally with multiple hat tricks this season. The winger was at his best in the third period as well, leading the country in goals (16), points (21) and game-winning goals (4) in the final 20 minutes.

Freshman defenseman Zac Jones was named to the Hockey East all-rookie team after leading freshman defensemen within the conference in scoring. He registered 23 points on three goals and 20 assists and was a plus-12 over 32 games played for the Minutemen.


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