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Young UMass roster looks to grow from challenging football season

  • University of Massachusetts sophomore center Dalton Tomlison, and linemen freshman Helber Fagundes and redshirt junior Larnel Coleman, right, set for a snap from the 5-yard line on a Bilal Ally touchdown run in the second quarter of the Minutemen's 62-28 loss to Coastal Carolina at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • University of Massachusetts redshirt freshman lineman Michael Sullivan rests while the Minutemen defense takes the field in the second quarter of their 37-29 win over Akron at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Sports Writer
Published: 11/25/2019 7:30:33 PM

AMHERST — Walt Bell wasn’t in the mood to reflect last week.

The first-year UMass coach was asked about the lessons he’s learned this season, but with the finale against BYU to prepare for, Bell had no time to think about the question. In reality, he said, it’ll be a few weeks before he’s able to sit down and actually think about the whirlwind of the last year since he was hired.

First, he has to go hit the recruiting trail.

“I don’t think like that, I’m worried about this one,” Bell said last Wednesday. “After that, I’ll take two days and then we’ll go recruit. When all that’s said and done on December 18, we’ll take a breather and bust out the notepad.”

On the field, the Minutemen clearly struggled on both sides of the ball. UMass enters the final week of the regular season ranked 130th out of 130 teams in five defensive categories, including scoring defense and total defense. The offense isn’t much better, ranking 116th in scoring offense and 125th in total offense.

The defense at least had the excuse of being young in the trenches, with injuries and roster attrition leaving freshmen on the defensive line. Although the stats don’t show it, there were significant improvements among the young players on the defensive line this season. The effort of those 18- and 19-year-olds impressed graduate transfer Jarvis Miller.

“Those guys are just so young, I was a freshman redshirting, there’s no way I would have been on the field at that young age but it makes them grow up fast,” Miller said. “(They) took their growing pains just like anyone else that young, especially on the D-line in Division I college football, this isn’t high school. That’s one of the hardest positions to play coming out of high school.”

The Minutemen ended up being just as inexperienced along the offensive line as well. Bell ended up playing two freshmen and a redshirt freshman most games along the line, earning them valuable experience.

Bell was able to save the redshirt for true freshman Xavier Graham, but the hundreds of snaps Graham, as well as freshman Helber Fagundes, played this season are invaluable to their development, senior lineman Mike Yerardi said.

“Throughout the games, you can see the growth,” Yerardi said. “Playing in games is when you make the most growth as an offensive lineman and Helber Fagundes, Mike Sullivan and the rest of those guys have really grown as offensive linemen throughout the season. I’m excited to see where they get to next year.”

As Bell noted in his postgame press conference after the 56-24 season-ending loss to BYU, the next two months will be vital for UMass (1-11) to evolve off the field. He said as much as his team must develop on the field, the key to growing as a program is the change of the culture off the field in terms of academics and social.

In terms of on the field accomplishments, Bell said his team played with the requisite effort most weeks and learned how to practice the correct fashion. But that’s only half of the coach’s formula to success. The other half is learning how to play smarter on the field, which means fewer breakdowns on defense and a better sense of what each position’s job is on the field on each play.

“That’s where we’ve got to make a huge jump as a football program going into year two, just the details of our jobs,” Bell said Saturday. “If we’re going to be outmanned, if we’re going to be a little undersized, if we’re going to be whatever physical metric there’s going to be, there’s only two ways to overcome that and that’s with effort and knowing what to do at a high level.”

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