UMass football: Spring Game closes one chapter for Minutemen, 2024 season fast approaching

UMass quarterback Ahmad Haston readies to make a play during the Minutemen’s Spring Game on Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst.

UMass quarterback Ahmad Haston readies to make a play during the Minutemen’s Spring Game on Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE AND CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writers

Published: 04-27-2024 5:27 PM

AMHERST — For a coach who’s been in the business for as long as UMass football head coach Don Brown has, it’s hard to find something he hasn’t already seen.

But during the Minutemen’s month of spring practice, they impressed the longtime coach with their drive and dedication to improvement still five months out from their first game. Brown admitted he hadn’t seen that level of commitment before.

The 14 total spring practices culminated with the UMass football spring game on Saturday afternoon at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in front of friends, family, Minutemen supporters and several former UMass players.

“I’m gonna be honest as a heart attack, through 14 practices I think it’s, if not the best, one of the best 14 practices of any group I’ve had in spring practice,” Brown said. “Am I happy with the spring? Yes. Was I totally happy with today? I was pretty happy.”

Saturday’s session started with Brown’s patented ‘Thunderstruck’ drill, where the offense marches down the field in its hurry-up, no-huddle style. Then came three quarters of running time, live-game action, as well as several situational possessions.

What made Brown so pleased with spring ball was UMass’ attention to detail and its desire to show up to practice and work. That showed on Saturday as well, with the players displaying a gameday-like effort.

“Effort, energy and I never had to stand at the door worrying about getting all these guys [to practice],” Brown said. “That stuff wears you out and pisses you off… I didn’t have to do any of that. I was able to focus on football and getting better at football for 14 practices.”

Following a promising season last fall where drastic improvement was shown on the field, the Minutemen are plowing forward full steam ahead. The spring season was another layer added to the foundation Brown is building.

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“Beating Army for the first time in our history, that was a monumental win for us,” Brown said. “We beat Merrimack. OK, well, prior to me getting here, there were two years where we lost to every FCS team… Looking back on it, I think we won’t go back now. We will now turn the corner.”

Below are some of the takeaways from UMass’ spring game and Don Brown’s postgame press conference.

Minutemen looking to add to portal after conclusion of spring ball

UMass has nine or 10 roster spots available and is looking for depth, Brown said.

After the departure of last year’s leading rusher Kay’Ron Lynch-Adams to Michigan State and second-leading rusher Greg Desrosiers into the transfer portal, UMass only had one running back cleared for full contact on Saturday. UMass returns just 219 rushing yards from last year’s group – 13% of the team’s total. Jalen John is the only rostered running back with any career rushing yards, and he recorded just 31 last year.

The Minutemen are looking to add two running backs in the transfer portal, Brown said. They’ve had prospective backs visiting each of the past few weekends and expect to finalize the position group by the end of May.

“We’ll play to their strengths,” Brown said. “If we get a big one, we’ll give him big boy runs. If we get a skill guy that’s 190 pounds and can get on the perimeter, we’ll give him wide zone, zone reads and those kinds of runs. If we get a speedster, we’ll get him on the edge.”

Last year, the Minutemen secondary struggled with depth and explosive plays. Brown wants to add an additional cornerback and an additional safety.

UMass also wants to add a couple offensive linemen. They’re looking for two defensive linemen, one inside and one outside. The Minutemen have already added Clemson grad-transfer Etinosa Reuben.

“Now that we’ve got him through spring and he’s running full speed, he’s going to help us,” Brown said. “He’s a dude. Put the Clemson film on when he’s playing. Pretty damn good.”

UMass is adding a pair of linebackers, though they have yet to be officially registered. One is a 6-foot-3 235-pound mike linebacker and the other is a 6-foot-1 207 pound Viper, a crossover between a linebacker and a safety.

Brown confident in quarterback situation

After several seasons of searching for a QB1, it felt like the Minutemen had a couple of options last fall. When Taisun Phommachanh went down with a knee injury in mid-September, Carlos Davis filled his shoes and kept UMass competitive in a handful of games over the next month.

Davis then hurt his shoulder in a game against New Mexico, which threw freshman Ahmad Haston into the fire.

Phommachanh came back late in the season, but was never 100 percent. The senior had a small surgery to clean up his knee, and he didn’t practice all spring – and also didn’t play in Saturday’s spring game.

Yet, Brown assures there is no room for concern.

“He probably could’ve come back this week, but that would’ve been dumb if he had gotten hurt,” Brown said. “We’ve got him ready to go.”

If for some reason Phommachanh can’t suit up come UMass’ season opener against Eastern Michigan on Aug. 31, Brown feels plenty comfortable putting Haston – who has taken almost all of the first-team reps in practice – in under center.

He looked much improved and certainly a lot more confident in his arm with the increased workload this spring, and it showed with several tremendous throws on Saturday.

“Our young guy at quarterback is really doing a good job,” Brown said. “Last year when we lost Taisun and he had to play some, that was scary. It’s not scary anymore. He’s gotten a ton of work and he’s improved. He’s running the ball with vigor, and he’s not afraid to mix it up either.”

No matter who is slinging it behind the Minutemen’s offensive line, which Brown called very big and physical, new offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery has worked all offseason to tailor his play-calling to fit either quarterback.

“I do think Shane is doing a good job getting the play action stuff in there, and he’s playing to their strengths,” Brown said, “especially to [Haston] because he’s the one getting most of the work. I think that’s good coaching. That’s good coaching.”

Standout plays from Saturday’s spring game

While the game was loosely organized to focus more on situations than traditional 11-on-11 gameplay, there were several highlights.

Backup quarterback Ahmad Haston provided the first explosive play of the day with a 45-yard scamper down the right sideline to score the day’s first touchdown. 

NFL Academy product and Estonia native Ott Eric Ottender scored on the longest play of the day. He took a screen pass 60 yards to the house down the right sideline.

Amherst High School graduate Shane Robles showed off as well. He grabbed a back shoulder fade in the end zone with a diving catch.

On the defensive end, Jeremiah McGill and Brennen Bailey recorded interceptions. Bailey took an overthrown pass in the flat and returned it 30 yards for a pick-six.