2015 CFB Preview – Massachusetts

    Massachusetts MinutemenGo to Team Page MinutemenGo to Selection Page           The wins might not have been there, but it was a

    July 2, 2015

    Massachusetts
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    The wins might not have been there, but it was a whole bunch of fun.

    By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

    After going 2-22 over the first two seasons up at the FBS level, and going 2-28 up until mid-October last season, finishing up 3-3 over the last six games was a huge step forward for UMass. But it could’ve been so much better.

    The program has to learn how to win again and has to learn how to close. It wasn’t used to being competitive, much less dangerous against decent teams, so when the opportunities were there to come up with big victories over the first half of the season, the team didn’t take advantage.

    New/old head coach Mark Whipple really did make a difference in his first year back with the program after taking the Minutemen to a national title and three playoff appearances from 1998 to 2003. The offense that managed just 140 points in 2013 scored 123 over a three game midseason stretch. The defense still had problems, and it couldn’t come up with that one big stop needed in a few losses, but at least it was a little bit stronger. But again, even with such an improvement and with a little bit of success, it still seemed empty because of what might have been.

    UMass had Colorado, Vanderbilt, Bowling Green and Miami University in trouble, but lost all four games by a grand total of 12 points. In all, the Minutemen were 0-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer, but in general, more experienced teams learn how to close. This team is more experienced.

    Triggerman Blake Frohnapfel is banged up after bombing away for a huge season, but he’s back along with the other ten starters are back on offense to go along with nine starters returning on defense. Does it all add up to being a challenger for the MAC East title? Considering what Whipple put in place last season, and how no one seemed happy with the way the team finished up the year with two late losses, the expectations are reasonably high.

    What You Need To Know About The Offense: The offense that finished 11th in the nation in passing gets Blake Frohnapfel back to bomb away along with a terrific group of receivers. Gone is TE Jean Sifrin, who left a year early for the NFL, but receivers Tajae Sharpe and Shakur Nesmith are playmakers. All five starters are back to what should be a nice line, and Shadrach Abrokwah and Lorenzo Woodley should form a nice rushing tandem that has to be a bit stronger after taking a way-back seat to the passing attack.

    What You Need To Know About The Defense: The defensive front three should be solid even though NT Daniel Maynes is gone, and the outside linebacking tandem of Kassan Messiah and Trey Seals should be one of the team’s biggest plusses around leading tackler Jovan Santos-Knox. Also helping the veteran defense is a secondary that returns all four starters – all seniors. Now the production has to follow all the experience after having problems with anyone who had any semblance of offense. With nine starters back, it’s time to stop someone.

    What to watch for on offense: Will there be a rushing attack to balance things out a bit? The passing game had to work to overcome the lack of defense – the Minutemen had to keep up in shootouts – but it would be nice if the O could control games a little more by grinding it out after keeping the ball for just over 27 minutes per game. The rushing attack only netted 1,312 yards, but it had a few nice moments tearing off 225 yards and five scores against Eastern Michigan and 196 yards and one score against Kent State. Now UMass has to average more than four yards per carry and has to be more consistent.

    What to watch for on defense: The pass rush has to be far better. UMass came up with just 15 sacks all season, and while the pressure stepped up over the second half of the year with nine sacks in the last five games, it still wasn’t enough. The linebacking corps did most of the heavy lifting when it came to getting behind the line, and now the ends have to do more and become more disruptive. There’s quickness and athleticism up front, but the production has to come with it.

    The team will be far better if … it can start winning the turnover battle on a consistent basis. What’s the difference between finishing 3-9 and 6-6? Going 2-5-5 on the year and finishing 103rd in the nation in turnover margin. How did UMass lose to Miami University 42-41? It turned the ball over four times. How did it lose to Bowling Green 47-42? It turned the ball over four times. On the year, the Minutemen won the two games when it was on the plus side of the turnover battle.

    The schedule: The Minutemen start the season a little bit late kicking off at Colorado on September 12. They need to be rest and ready to go without a break the rest of the way.
    – With Temple and FIU coming to Massachusetts, there’s a chance to come up with a few non-conference wins mixed in with the dates with Colorado and Notre Dame. No matter what, 2-2 would be a great start.
    – Getting three games against the West isn’t too bad with Ball State and Eastern Michigan manageable, but playing Toledo isn’t fun.
    – There isn’t a horrible run of road games in a bunch – there aren’t any three-road-games-in-four-week things like a lot of MAC teams have to deal with.
    – Only one home game – Toledo – is against a team that went bowling last season. In all, there are only three games against teams that went bowling.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Kent State. The Minutemen can’t afford to blow the relative layup with the trip to Bowling Green the week before and the Toledo game coming after.

    Best offensive player: Senior WR Tajae Sharpe. While it’s hard to argue against QB Blake Frohnapfel and what he brings with the passing game, Sharpe had everything to do with the offensive turnaround, too. At 6-4 and 200 pounds, Sharpe has the size to outmuscle defenders, and he has the speed to stretch the field when needed averaging over 15 yards per grab. Tight end Jean Sifrin might have left early for the NFL, but the rest of the very big, very talented receiving corps will help take the pressure off.

    Best defensive player: Senior LB Jovan Santos-Knox. He didn’t make every tackle last year for the Minutemen defense – he just seemed like he did. The team’s biggest linebacker was built to stuff the run at 6-2 and 240 pounds, and now he might do even more than his 143 tackles of last year with running mate Stanley Andre gone. Santos-Knox has the quickness to make plays in pass coverage and can be used as a pass rusher when needed – he can do it all.

    Key player to a successful season: Junior DEs Peter Angeh and/or Enock Asante. The UMass defense relies on the outside linebackers to get behind the line and get to the quarterback, but the defensive front needs to do more to pressure the quarterback and come up with a few more pops. Linebackers were the top three sackers last year – but the D came up with just 15 total – and it would be nice if there was one killer pass rusher up front to make offenses worry.

    The season will be a success if … UMass comes up with a winning season. Even with all the experience, and even with all of the promise and potential coming from last year, six victories would still be strong and seven would be tremendous. Is the defense improved enough to handle Bowling Green on the road? Can the offense handle a loaded Temple defense at home? The Minutemen should be good enough to be FIU, Kent State, Akron, Eastern Michigan, Miami University and Buffalo, but they’ll probably lose at least one of those. Even so, the expectations for something special aren’t misguided.

    Key game: Sept. 19 vs. Temple. Call this the indicator game early on. Temple is loaded on defense and should be good enough to be a factor in the American Athletic, but if UMass can pull off the win at home, it’ll avoid a likely 0-3 start – the game is wrapped around road games to Colorado and Notre Dame – and will show that this really might be a team ready to do big things.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Opponent 1st Quarter Scoring: 53 – Opponent 2nd Quarter Scoring: 152
    – Time of Possession: Opponents 32:44 – UMass 27:16
    – Penalties: Opponents 95 for 908 yards – UMass 73 for 617 yards

    Players You Need To Know

    1. WR Tajae Sharpe, Sr.
    With the improvement in the passing game, Sharpe became one of the key parts of the puzzle with a team-leading 85 catches for 1,281 yards and seven scores, lighting up Bowling Green for 179 yards and two scores on 13 catches, and hitting Eastern Michigan with 13 catches for 193 yards. The big moment was Ball State, blowing up for 239 yards on 13 catches, making big things happen after the catch. The 6-4, 200-pounder has excellent size and good enough deep speed to average over 15 yards per catch, and now he should be among the MAC’s elite targets.

    2. LB Jovan Santos-Knox, Jr.
    After a decent sophomore year, making 32 tackles and showing good promise, he turned into the team’s best defensive player earning First Team All-MAC honors with 143 stops and 8.5 tackles for loss to go along with three forced fumbles and two sacks. Not just great against the run, he was decent on mid-range pass plays breaking up six passes, too. At 6-2 and 240 pounds he has good size, and he makes play after play coming up with double-digit tackles in eight games with 12 or more in each and 19 against Akron. Everything funnels to him, but he gets in on plays in the open field – making 11 solo stops against the Zips – too.

    3. QB Blake Frohnapfel, Sr.
    The former Marshall quarterback graduated early and had two years of eligibility left at UMass. He was absolutely everything the program could’ve ever hoped for earning First Team All-MAC honors hitting 55% of his passes for 3,345 yards and 23 touchdowns with ten picks, bombing away for 589 yards and four scores against Bowling Green and coming up with 438 yards and five touchdowns against Toledo and 424 yards against Ball State, but he suffered a leg injury and missed the final two games of the season. At 6-6 and 229 pounds he has great size and a live arm, but he’s not going to run and he can be a sitting duck in the pocket. As long as he’s protected, he’ll spread the ball around well and will push it down the field.

    4. CB Randall Jette, Sr.
    A good special team performer, he turned into a solid corner as a sophomore making 45 tackles with 11 broken up passes in a break through 2013 season. Last year he took his game up another few notches making 67 tackles with a whopping 18 defended passes and four picks. The 5-11, 180-pounder from Florida used to be a great punt returner, but he focused more on being the main man in the secondary. For his size he’s a tough, physical tackler for a corner who can also jump out of the stadium and cut on a dime.

    5. S Joey Colton, Sr.
    While he’s not all that huge at 5-10 and 195 pounds, he’s a big-hitting safety and a good all-around veteran coming up with 98 tackles with a sack, 11 tackles for loss and four broken up passes – he knows what he’s doing. Active and extremely quick, he gets physical when he has to. More of a strong safety then a ball-hawker, he provides the big pop when he gets the chance and is excellent against the run, making 13 tackles in the opener against Boston College and 12 against both Vanderbilt and Bowling Green.

    6. CB Trey Dudley-Giles, Sr.
    One of the team’s best all-around athletes, the 5-11, 182-pound Florida native made 52 tackles on the year with two picks while also averaging 33.6 yards per kickoff return and eight yards per punt return. He didn’t get enough chances as a returner, but he has the quickness and vision to be dangerous whenever he gets the ball in his hands. A good defender, he’s not necessarily a shutdown corner like Randall Jette can be, but he’s great in the open field and is a steady hitter, topping out with ten stops in the win over Ball State.

    7. LB Kassan Messiah, Sr.
    While he works as an outside linebacker, the 6-4, 237-pounder is a hybrid who can be utilized more as a top pass rusher who can get into the backfield on a regular basis. Despite missing a game, he still finished fourth on the team with 69 tackles, he also came up with three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss – those numbers could double this year. Great at getting in on the play against the run, he came up with 12 tackles against Boston College’s ground attack and made 11 against Bowling Green and ten against Kent State – he makes things happen.

    8. RB Shadrach Abrokwah, Jr.
    Despite missing the first four games of the season, he still came back to lead the team in rushing with 573 yards and seven touchdowns including a four-score day against Eastern Michigan. The 5-9, 202-pounder showed his potential at the end of 2013, and produced when he got his chances with three 100-yard games while also catching 13 passes for 78 yards and a score. Quick and tough in the interior, he can barrel when he has to, but he also has the upside to grow into more of a receiver.

    9. TE Rodney Mills, Sr.
    Jean Sifrin was the NFL-caliber tight end with great all-around skills making 41 catches for 637 yards and six scores, but Mills got his work, too, catching 30 passes for 489 yards and five touchdowns. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, the Gainesville, Florida native is more of a wide receiver than a true tight end, but he can hut a little bit and work as a fullback when needed. With Sifrin leaving early for the next level, Mills will play a bigger role in the passing game this year.

    10. RB Lorenzo Woodley, Jr.
    The 6-0, 212-pound back has the ability to do it all for the ground game, but now he has to start playing up to the hype. A phenomenal recruit for the program, the Miami native had several offers from places like Florida State, Tennessee and Syracuse, he has the quickness to go along with the size and pop, and he started to show glimpses as a freshman with 163 yards on 38 carries against Northern Illinois. Last year he took off for 160 yards on 23 carries against Kent State and ended up with 420 yards and five scores on 102 carries, but he only averaged 4.1 yards per pop. The ability is there to do far more.

    11. OT Tyrell Smith, Jr.
    A very good, very strong athlete, the 6-5, 315-pounder handled the left tackle job in every game and did a decent job. The former guard is better suited for the outside with the quickness and size to grow into even more of a pass protector, and he’s good when he gets on the move. All five starters return up front, and Smith should be the leader of the pack again.

    Head Coach: Mark Whipple
    8th year (two stints): 52-35
    18th year overall: 124-68
    Schedule
    Sept. 5 OPEN DATE
    Sept. 12 at Colorado
    Sept. 19 Temple
    Sept. 26 at Notre Dame
    Oct. 3 Florida International
    Oct. 10 at Bowling Green
    Oct. 17 Kent State
    Oct. 24 Toledo
    Oct. 31 at Ball State
    Nov. 7 Akron
    Nov. 14 at Eastern Mich
    Nov. 21 Miami Univ.
    Nov. 27 at Buffalo
    Ten Best UMass Players
    1. WR Tajae Sharpe, Sr.
    2. LB Jovan Santos-Knox, Jr.
    3. QB Blake Frohnapfel, Sr.
    4. CB Randall Jette, Sr.
    5. S Joey Colton, Sr.
    6. CB Trey Dudley-Giles, Sr.
    7. LB Kassan Messiah, Sr.
    8. RB Shadrach Abrokwah, Jr.
    9. TE Rodney Mills, Sr.
    10. RB Lorenzo Woodley, Jr.

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