UMass football making progress installing Walt Bell’s offense

  • UMass wide receiver Sadiq Palmer carries the ball during spring practice Tuesday, March 19, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass quarterbacks Randall West, from left, Josiah Johnson and Michael Curtis pass during spring practice Tuesday, March 19, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/26/2019 9:47:03 PM

AMHERST — The speed of a UMass spring football practice is good mimicry of what fans can expect from the offense this season.

Walt Bell’s offense is going to move fast and the UMass quarterbacks are adjusting to a new tempo to the attack. Most of the first four days of the spring practice has dealt with installing the offense, which is a major shift for the signal-callers. Bell has spent a decent chunk of his time during practice with the quarterbacks helping them master the mechanics of the new system.

But once Bell dons his headphones and starts dialing up plays in the team portion of practice, there is no time for the quarterbacks to overthink their new responsibilities.

“It’s just getting used to tempo and seeing signals rather than hearing a long true West Coast-style play call,” rising senior Michael Curtis said. “That all comes with time. That’s what they’re trying to preach to us right now, we’re going to make mistakes, just make them as fast as you possibly can.”

Bell said he still notices the offense thinking a lot, which he said is normal considering it’s hard to acclimate to his system without being on the field. He said he can talk about the offense and teach in meetings all spring, but that can’t replace the real-time experience of having a football in hand during practice.

He said he wants the five quarterbacks to have enough of an understanding of the offense by the spring game on April 20 that they’ll know what to focus on during the hiatus until training camp in August.

“You hope by the time they get out of spring football that they’re confident in what they have to execute over the summer on their own,” Bell said. “It’s just general system knowledge. By no means are we going to be a finished product, we’re going to be really small, really limit what we do and try to get really good at something. When we get into summer, we have to know what’s going on.”

The biggest difference between Bell’s scheme and the one Mark Whipple ran during his tenure is the freedom the quarterbacks have to make plays. Whipple’s pro style system was based on three- and five-step drops that allowed the quarterbacks time to scan the field and identify their options. Bell’s is far more quick-twitch reflexes based on what the quarterback sees in the defense before the snap.

It is a more sophisticated version of the offense Curtis ran at Trinity Valley Community College in 2015 when he threw for 2,311 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 593 more yards. He said his favorite aspects of the scheme were how much liberty he had to make instant decisions for himself if he saw something in the defense.

“It’s a lot less full-field progressions to where it’s now what do we see pre-snap and go off of that,” Curtis said. “I really like the idea of what we call managing the gray. It’s where you see the shell of something, you get the idea of something and you just instinctively play rather than you go from here to here to here and you choose one of these decisions. You get a good feel for the game and you just be yourself and express what you can do.”

The offense also forces the receivers to have more knowledge of the basic offensive concepts and be able to react appropriately. Rising senior Sadiq Palmer said the receivers and quarterbacks need to be on the same page a little more because he has more freedom to do what’s necessary in order to shake his defender and become a viable target to receive the pass.

“We definitely have a lot more leeway, so it’s a lot more of you getting open,” Palmer said. “You go out there, do your thing and get open and the quarterback’s going to find you.”

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