UMass quarterback battle reaches crunch time

  • UMass quarterbacks Andrew Brito, front left, and Randall West, front right, run a drill during practice, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass quarterback Michael Curtis runs a drill during the first practice of the season, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 at McGuirk Stadium. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2019 9:17:08 PM
Modified: 8/21/2019 9:16:58 PM

AMHERST — The first rule of the Walt Bell School of Decision Making is to take all the time allotted.

So in theory the first-year UMass coach won’t decide his starting quarterback until the Minutemen get on the bus from the hotel to SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey, next week. In reality, though, Bell isn’t feeling the rush to name a starter with the opener against Rutgers looming a week from Friday.

“Whenever we’re ready, we’re ready,” Bell said. “Obviously we’d like to know sooner rather than later, but whenever we’re ready, we’re ready. ... It’s getting to be about that time, but we still have time.”

The race to be the starting quarterback hasn’t been trimmed down much since the start of camp with Andrew Brito, Michael Curtis and Randall West always having the edge. The three have taken almost all the first-team reps since the beginning of practice and there doesn’t seem to be much separating them from the untrained eye.

The differences between the three contenders is what exactly they will bring to the offense if they’re the starter. Brito has the best arm strength of the group and has looked his best on the short to intermediate passes that don’t require long drop backs. Curtis is a dual-threat quarterback who can add a more convincing rushing threat to the read-option aspects of Bell’s system. West is a steady presence and very even-keeled, and also might be the most accurate of the group.

“From day one, it’s kind of been about everyone brings something a little different to the table as far as what they’re best attribute is and everyone has their own weaknesses,” Curtis said. “As it gets closer, we’re sharpening up more on this offense. We know it so well because we’ve had so many repetitions that we’re trying to build our skill set within this offense. It’s a good thing, though, you don’t want it to be a landslide in any competition, you want everyone to give each other a run for their money so everyone has their competitive best when their best is needed.”

It is a credit to Brito’s work ethic that the transfer from the College of the Canyons in California is still in the competition considering the disadvantage he inherited. Brito didn’t arrive in Amherst until June so he missed spring practice, which gave Curtis and West 15 extra days of practice in Bell’s offense.

Yet Brito has devoted himself to closing the gap off the field as much as possible to give him the best chance possible to win the job.

“He’s a great physical talent, he has really special arm talent for a little guy,” Bell said. “He pores himself into what we’re doing. Football is really important to him and he competes and he spends as much time or even more time than anybody else on our roster in the building trying to learn, watching tape on his own.”

It certainly helped Brito that Bell’s system is not that complicated by his own admission. The offense took roughly five days to install this summer, the coach said, and now it’s about perfecting the craft. That is the challenge facing all three quarterbacks with both Bell and quarterbacks coach Angelo Mirando applying the pressure to be flawless with their decision making.

“It’s definitely not as complicated as other schools, but here we demand perfection out of our quarterbacks, especially with Coach Bell as our head coach and him being a quarterback guy,” Brito said. “Really the big thing is about trying to be perfect with the offense. It’s not hard to learn the offense, it’s just hard to be perfect every single day and that’s what we’re trying to do every single day at practice.”

Striving for perfection in a competition this tight opens the door for every little mistake to be scrutinized and analyzed under a microscope. The quarterbacks were almost flawless during the second scrimmage when they announced their “crimes against the team” after Tuesday’s practice, so every missed assignment or critical error is potentially going to be the difference.

All three quarterbacks said the ability to compartmentalize is important in practice and a skill they’ve had to develop over time to not dwell on mistakes. But just as important for the signal-callers is suppressing the need to match every explosive play from another quarterback with one of their own and sticking to what the defense gives them on a given play.

“It’s hard especially in a competition like this where you’re competing with two other guys and you see them make a play and you press and you press and you press because you really want to make a play, and that leads to mistakes,” West said. “Each snap is an individual deal and you have to be in the moment, you have to focus on your job, if you do those two things and focus on what Coach Bell and Coach Mirando want from us then success follows.”

Despite the competition within the room, all three quarterbacks said they have a great relationship with one another and that there is no awkwardness between the trio. The quarterbacks have eaten many meals together over the summer and the dynamic has kept the room open and inviting for the other four quarterbacks on the roster. Even Curtis said he was surprised with how close the quarterbacks are to each other at UMass.

“When I went into college, I didn’t think it would be that way because everyone’s always competing to get that job,” Curtis said. “We really are lucky and blessed to have a room that’s as close as we are. ... We’re eating dinner together and lunch together all the time, and when the school year starts we’ll see each other a lot more. It’s really cool to have a quarterback room that’s so close and meshes so well.”

Throughout the entire process, Bell and Mirando have been open and transparent with the quarterbacks about where they stand within the competition. Bell said he wants to make sure the players understand both their positioning on that given day as well as the reasoning behind the decision. West said that honesty is important for players so that they don’t feel blindsided if they don’t win the job.

“You want to play for a guy who’s going to be honest with you,” West said. “You want a guy who’s going to let you know this is what it is and this is what it’s going to be. … When you have somebody who’s honest with you, it just makes everything so much easier. Coach Bell has been very up front with us about it being a competition and they can only trot out one guy at quarterback. Coach Mirando said we have two seniors and JUCO guy and somebody’s going to have some hurt feelings at the end of this. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the business and you have to understand that going into it. With the honesty, it makes things a little easier.”

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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