Walt Bell taking ‘no shortcuts’ in growing UMass football program

  • Massachusetts defensive lineman Taishan Holmes (95) celebrates after sacking Liberty quarterback Malik Willis (7) during the first half of a NCAA college football game on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Shaban Athuman) Shaban Athuman—AP

  • Massachusetts quarterback Garrett Dzuro (9) hands the ball to running back Cam Roberson (23) during the first half of a NCAA college football game against Liberty on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Shaban Athuman) Shaban Athuman—AP

  • Massachusetts wide receiver Samuel Emilus (19) makes a catch as he is defended by Liberty safeties Cedric Stone (23) and Marcus Haskins (7) during the first half of a NCAA college football game on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Shaban Athuman) Shaban Athuman—AP

  • UMass senior wide receiver Javon Turner, left, and freshman safety Te’Rai Powell walk off the field following their 45-0 loss to Liberty to end the season, Nov. 27 at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va. This week’s recruiting class will give the Minutemen a lift, but the program is still growing under second-year coach Walt Bell. AP

  • Massachusetts wide receiver Jermaine "OC" Johnson, Jr. (10) makes a catch as he is defended by Liberty cornerback Quinton Reese (16) during the second half of a NCAA college football game on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, at Williams Stadium in Lynchburg, Va. (AP Photo/Shaban Athuman) Shaban Athuman—AP

  • UMass quarterback Garrett Dzuro, right, looks to make a play against Liberty, Nov. 27. Who the quarterback is for the future is to be determined. Head coach Walt Bell said Will Koch, Dzuro and freshman Zamar Wise are the current guys going forward. AP

Sports Editor
Published: 12/15/2020 8:17:52 PM

The process continues for Walt Bell.

The next step is Wednesday, when the UMass football head coach welcomes his second recruiting class. It will be a much-needed group following last year’s defensive haul.

His second class, much like the first, will get an opportunity early to play. In 2019 the Minutemen were the youngest FBS team in the nation. This year’s team didn’t get much older, but the experience was just as important.

While the Minutemen went 0-4 with lopsided losses, the season was anything but useless. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA granted players an extra year of eligibility. Every practice and game repetition the Minutemen gained this year only bodes well for the future. While the results were far from perfect, it was essentially a redshirt season for the program.

“There’s good and bad with everything,” Bell said. “We were a little bit disadvantaged when it came to preparation but I’m glad we did (play). I would much rather go play our schedule next year with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores that have anywhere between 800 and 300 game reps than had not played at all this past season. It will be worth it in the future.”

Bell wasn’t going pull the Minutemen out from their FBS hole in two seasons, especially when the second one was plagued by the pandemic from the start. He has a long-term vision. Bell likened his task of building the program to growing a Chinese bamboo tree. A seed is planted, fertilized and watered every day for five years. During year six the tree will grow to anywhere between 90 and 120 feet tall.

“Right now the way I look at it is we are being very mindful, we’re being very present, we’re doing it the right way, we’re doing everything that we need to do with an incredible young program to let that bamboo start to grow,” Bell said. “What we're doing every single day is we're giving it water, a ton of fertilizer and we’re going to let this young group grow and we’re going to get really good really fast. There are no shortcuts at a place like ours.”

With no quick fix, Bell is left to build piece by piece. Last year’s recruiting class focused heavily on the defense, and at times the young Minutemen showed their potential. Lineman Josh Atwood and Viczaril Alobwede saw significant time as true freshmen. Safety Te’Rai Powell, and linebackers Nahji Logan and Gerrell Johnson each played in all four games.

Will Koch was the only quarterback in the 2020 class. He appeared in three games this season, as did redshirt sophomore Garrett Dzuro. Who the quarterback is for the future is to be determined. Bell said Koch, Dzuro and freshman Zamar Wise are the current guys going forward. Wise signed late in the process and arrived over the summer with the rest of the Minutemen. He appeared in two games at receiver and made two receptions. He has since moved back to quarterback.

“All three of those guys have played in games and I’m really excited to see those guys develop because that’s a huge part of quarterback,” Bell said, “having a full spring and a real fall camp, knowing that we got neither of those (this year), and knowing that those guys had to play a really rushed (season); no real install and no real time to really learn.”

While he can’t comment specifically on unsigned recruits, Bell said he expects one player from the 2021 class to compete at quarterback.

When that player arrives there will be at least one less quarterback in the room. Andrew Britto, who started in 2019, has elected to transfer.

Britto isn’t the only one leaving. Linebacker Mike Ruane, who was second on the team with 31 tackles, and defensive lineman Jake Byczko, have elected to leave as graduate transfers. Byczko has reportedly committed to Boston College.

Losing Ruane and Byczko was bittersweet for Bell.

“Not only because they were good football players for us in their specific roles but really good kids as well,” Bell said. “They made the decision to move on, it happens everywhere. ... It stings when they are really good kids and that’s the hard part.”

In addition to the quarterback recruit, Bell is expecting several other players on the offensive side to sign. The new weapons will give him more to work with in 2021. Bell said he is taking over as offensive coordinator. The rest of the coaching staff should remain in place.

“I feel like we’re in a position programmatically where I can do what actually got me to the dance and that’s coach the offense,” he said.

While the next class will add more talent to the roster, the Minutemen still have plenty of room to grow. Considering where the program was when Bell took over, he is willing to be patient and let the process play out.

“More than probably anybody else I understood what was going on when I took the job. I knew there was going to be a lot of dark days before there was very much light,” Bell said. “That’s what happens when you inherit a roster with 52 scholarship players. There’s going to be a lot of dark, but we've done all the right things, we have tended very mindfully. At some point that bamboo is going to take off and it’s going to grow really fast.”

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.




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