UMass football turning to wide receiver committee to replace Andy Isabella

  • UMass wide receiver Sadiq Palmer runs a drill during the first practice of the season, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium.

  • UMass wide receiver Zak Simon, right, during the first practice of the season, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium.

  • UMass wide receiver Zak Simon, right, during the first practice of the season, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium.

  • UMass wide receiver Sadiq Palmer runs a drill during the first practice of the season, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/8/2019 6:18:37 PM
Modified: 8/8/2019 6:18:27 PM

AMHERST — Last season the UMass offense was understandably Andy Isabella’s show.

The Arizona Cardinals rookie receiver rewrote the record books and dominated the stat sheet as a senior for the Minutemen last year. He did so much for UMass that he had 74 more catches and 1,200 yards more than the next closest player on the roster.

That type of imbalance certainly won’t happen this year under coach Walt Bell.

“It’s always difficult in this offense to catch a bunch of balls because we try to be so balanced run-pass,” wide receivers coach Luke Paschall said. “… It’s hard in college football nowadays to get close to 100 catches unless people are scheming to throw you the ball. Our offense, it’s really not about that … it’s all about what the defense gives you.”

Bell’s scheme is designed to spread the ball around and not single out a receiver or two to absorb a majority of the targets. As such, it’ll be difficult for anyone to touch the records Isabella set last season, but that will allow the depth of the receiving group to shine this season. The returning receivers combined fell short of Isabella’s stats from a year ago, but there were glimpses of the talent they had.

Young receivers like Samuel Emilus and Zak Simon made the most of their limited targets last season. Emilus, in particular, made a mark with 15 catches and four touchdowns in just six games, including five catches for two scores in the triple-overtime win over Liberty. Simon caught 15 passes over 10 appearances, but averaged nearly 16 yards per reception on those touches.

“This year we’re going to have four or five receivers over 500 (yards) and before, it wasn’t like that,” senior Sadiq Palmer said. “It’s going to be receivers are going to be able to show what they’ve got and make more plays or at least attempt to make more plays. You’re going to see a lot of people who people didn’t know could do different things are going to make stuff happen this year.”

The depth at receiver has always excited quarterback Michael Curtis since he arrived three years ago as a junior college transfer. Now that depth will be on full display and he said he thinks it’ll bring out the best in every player knowing they will have an opportunity to make an impact every game.

“We were talking (Thursday morning) about how exciting it’s going to be that everybody is going to have a production in this offense,” senior quarterback Michael Curtis said. “It’s not going to be a thing where you go into the game thinking ‘I hope I get a catch or two,’ it’s going to be something where every single player (has a chance). It’s not we’re running a play and trying to throw to one guy, everyone has an opportunity to catch the ball.”

With a limited amount of touches per game, it would be natural for the receivers to have an internal rivalry about the number of catches they have. However, the group has bought into the notion that no one will deliver the same statistics as Isabella and have accepted the need for sacrifice in order to help the team win.

“The receiver group is like a brotherhood,” Emilus said. “We all want (each other) to have catches, we’re not selfish, we want everybody making plays.”

Palmer is the de facto leader in a position room that features just one other junior who has spent his entire career at UMass. However, even he will take on a new role and be asked to do different things within the UMass offense. Known as a steady, possession-based receiver his first three years, Palmer has lost a little bit of weight and become faster, which should allow him to stretch the field more than in years past.

That type of commitment to change and evolution is what helped make Isabella a star last season for the Minutemen. Paschall said the lasting legacy Isabella will leave with this group was the amount of work he put in to transform from an under-recruited track star into a second-round draft pick in four years.

“The one good thing they were able to see is how hard Andy worked,” Paschall said. “He was able to develop his game over a four- or five-year period that some of those guys in that room can take that work ethic and apply it to themselves. If they can even come close to doing that, you’ll see progression, and that’s all we want.”

Both Emilus and Simon said they learned to respect the details from Isabella and that has helped motivate them during offseason training.

“We can’t settle for less, we all want to build and get better,” Simon said. “Everybody has been doing a lot of stuff on their own individually and collectively as a team, we have to take it up a notch. It starts with one of us and then we all have to build off of that.”

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.


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