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Turnaround time is now for Minutemen

Coach Mark Whipple is all smiles during UMass Football Media Day in Amherst Wednesday, when he discussed his team's prospects for the upcoming 2014 season.
Recorder file/J. Anthony Roberts

Coach Mark Whipple is all smiles during UMass Football Media Day in Amherst Wednesday, when he discussed his team's prospects for the upcoming 2014 season. Recorder file/J. Anthony Roberts Purchase photo reprints »

AMHERST — Seven months ago, the UMass athletic administration decided to face its uncertain football future by reaching back into its successful recent past.

Mark Whipple enters the first season of his second tour of duty as the Minutemen’s head football coach, charged with the responsibility of turning around a program that went 1-11 in each of its first two seasons as a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision member. Whipple went 49-26 in his first six seasons in Amherst from 1998 through 2003, including a Division I-AA national title in his first season.

While his introductory press conference in December of 1997 featured a promise to compete for national championships — followed up by the immediate payoff 12 months later — Whipple made no such bold proclamation at Wednesday’s annual Media Day event, but listed contention for a Mid-American Conference title and a postseason bowl appearance as the Minutemen’s realistic goals.

“This is a group that, the way their actions are, they’ve shown they want to be successful,” said Whipple, speaking in the newly-built Football Performance Center at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. “They’re working the right way, and more importantly, they’re working as a team. The group I had in ’98 probably didn’t have a lot of confidence early. I think this group hasn’t, but I think they’ve gained some. In that way, there’s certainly similarities.

“I’d probably still want to give the ball to Marcel Shipp in both years,” quipped Whipple, referring to the Minutemen’s record-setting tailback of the late 1990s who’s now returned as UMass’ running backs coach.

Players of the quality of Shipp and Liam Coen — UMass’ quarterback from 2005 through 2008 and its new quarterbacks coach — would help the turnaround, if only they were available. Yet the Minutemen, now just 21/2 weeks ahead of their 2014 season opener Aug. 30 against Boston College at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, need marked improvement in nearly every area to pull themselves off the deck from 2-22 over the last two seasons.

Of 124 Division I FBS teams that competed in 2013, UMass finished dead last in points scored, 123rd in total offense, 77th in total defense and 98th in points allowed.

“We’re definitely expecting to stretch the field and challenge defenders this year,” said junior wideout Tajae Sharpe, one of UMass’ top offensive returnees with 61 catches and four touchdowns last season. “A very explosive offense, a lot of big plays and deep balls. UMass fans can get ready to be screaming a lot.”

Success on offense begins at quarterback, with ongoing competition between incumbent junior A.J. Doyle and graduate student Blake Frohnapfel, a transfer from Marshall with two years of eligibility left. Doyle started nine of UMass’ 12 games last fall and completed nearly 55 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Whipple said he expected to make a decision this weekend as to which would start.

Jamal Wilson (368 yards in 2013) and Lorenzo Woodley (314 yards) lead the UMass running game, which got an unexpected boost late last season from then-freshman Shadrach Abrokwah, who totaled 203 rushing yards in the final two games. Jordan Broadnax also returns after a redshirt season in 2013.

The Minutemen will miss departed tight end Rob Blanchflower, who sat out half of last season with injuries but still showed enough to become a seventh-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Besides a top performer in Sharpe, UMass’ quarterback can also look to returning receivers Elgin Long and Bernard Davis, plus Shakur Nesmith, who missed all but the season opener due to injury, and Marken Michel, who sat out the 2013 season.

Along the offensive line, the Minutemen lost tackles Anthony Dima and David Osei and guard Vincent Westcarr, who combined for 35 starts last season. Matt Sparks and Tyrell Smith anchor the line at center and left guard respectively, but the other three spots remain unsettled.

New defensive coordinator Tom Masella, who coached with Whipple at UMass in 2002 and 2003, brings his preferred 3-4 formation with him, which should suit the Minutemen’s relative strength at linebacker. Senior Stanley Andre led UMass with 111 tackles last season and will play alongside junior Jovan Santos-Knox on the inside, with fellow juniors Kassan Messiah and Trey Seals on the edges.

Depth and lack of size along the defensive line remain a going concern for a unit that let up an average of 33 points per game in 2013. Fifth-year senior Daniel Maynes started seven games at tackle last season, but no one else in contention has more than two career starts.

In the backfield, the Minutemen can rely on returning starters Trey Dudley-Giles, Randall Jette and Joey Colton and key backup Khary Bailey-Smith.

UMass lost its starting placekicker and punter from last season and will retool behind junior Blake Lucas, looking to rally from a 3-of-10 field-goal performance after going 7-of-8 in 2012. Dudley-Giles has the Minutemen covered on both punt and kickoff returns.

Following their Aug. 30 opener against BC, the Minutemen host Colorado Sept. 6 in Foxborough before going on the road to Vanderbilt Sept. 13 and to Penn State Sept. 20. They’ll return to McGuirk Alumni Stadium Sept. 27 to play their first on-campus home game since 2011, facing Bowling Green in their Mid-American Conference opener.

“I think we have the resources to compete for the MAC championship and to get to a major bowl,” said Whipple. “That’s where our goal is for the next couple of years. I just see improvement every day. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve certainly improved since last spring.”

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