UMass football: Don Brown era 2.0 gets underway in Amherst

  • STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2022 7:17:10 PM

AMHERST — A new era of Massachusetts football gets underway on Friday, and count new head coach Don Brown among those itching to get things started. 

After months of traveling around the country recruiting, bringing in players from the transfer portal and participating in spring practices, UMass will officially get its team into McGuirk Stadium on Friday morning for the first practice of the season as the Minutemen begin preparations for their Sept. 3 opener in New Orleans where they’ll take on Tulane. 

“This what you do it for,” Brown said during UMass Media Day on Thursday at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center. “This is why when I hit the ground here on Dec. 1, I was gone by the end of the day flying around New England and working my way South. That’s what you do all that for.

“They like to play,” Brown continued. “Getting them to go to practice tomorrow isn’t a problem. Anxious to get on the field for legit purposes tomorrow. We’re back to 11-on-11. Let’s get rolling.”

UMass fans will need to have a roster handy during the early portion of the season. As is typically the case when a new staff comes in, the roster completely changes over and with the new NCAA rules regarding the transfer portal, that turnover is amplified. 

Between high school recruits and players added through the transfer portal, 43 new players will be hitting the McGuirk turf on Friday sporting UMass jerseys for the first time. While it’ll be the first true practices of the season, Brown said he has been pleased with the work his group has put in throughout the offseason to be ready to go once the pads go on. 

“I’m fired up,” Brown said. “Thank god the NCAA made some rules that make a little sense and we’ve been able to get a lot of work done. You can’t have a helmet on, you can’t play 11-on-11 in group work but you can still accomplish quite a lot.

“In our scenario, we have 43 new players through the recruiting cycle,” he continued. “It’s important to get them on the same page as fast as we can. In our situation, the first time through, starting in the beginning of February, we’ve been able to get our core players a good feel of what we’re doing conceptually in all three phases.” 

For redshirt senior running back Ellis Merriweather — who has spent the last two years at UMass and was the first Minuteman running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in the FBS era — the energy around the program with the new staff is a welcomed change. 

“We’re coming together real well,” Merriweather said. “Coach Brown is a great leader and the people he brought on our staff, they’re great leaders and the right guys for us. They’re allowing us to go out there, feel free and play ball. They’re preaching what UMass football is known for and the dominance they had back in the day. We need to bring that back.” 

With so many new faces, and a new staff to evaluate the holdovers from the Walt Bell era, expect plenty of competition at camp over the next month.

Brown said that every player will have to earn their spot and will be given an opportunity to earn snaps once Saturday’s come around.  

“There’s no jobs won yet,” Brown said. “With the way college football is today, you better let everyone compete to play. They’ll jump in the transfer portal in a hurry. I just let them all compete. We did it all spring. There was no scout teams. We had first unit, second unit, third unit, we rotated guys through. Everyone got playing time, everyone practiced, everybody was running around and everyone got coached. We’re going to do the same thing right here.

“You’re looking to create competition at each position,” Brown added. “You’re looking to challenge your guys as much as you possibly can to take your game to the next level. You’re looking for them to maximize their potential. That’s what we keep hitting them with. Nobody rises to low expectations. They’ve done a good job buying into that.”

And yes, that includes the most important position in the sport – quarterback – where returnees Brady Olson, Zamar Wise and Garrett Dzuro, join Modesto Junior College transfer Gino Campiotti and freshman Chase Brewster as players in the mix to be UMass’ starting signal caller. 

“There’s a lot of things we have to work our way through,” Brown said. “You say, ‘You don’t know who your quarterback is?’ Well, we have guys with different strengths. Who are we going to be on offense? We don’t know that yet. Maybe two quarterbacks can help you. We’re going to work hard to evaluate and make sure when we get close to game week, we’ll be ready to go.”

With all the new players on board, UMass will have a full roster throughout the season unless an unprecedented run of injuries occurs. 

Brown said he likes the depth the Minutemen have, taking advantage of the new NCAA rules to make sure UMass has as many scholarship players as possible on the roster. 

“With the change this year in recruiting where you can take seven extra players through the NCAA, that’s a big deal now,” Brown said. “In the past, they’ve been in the 70’s for players starting the season. Five guys get hurt and you’re an FCS roster. We’re maxed out at the scholarship level. We have a few extra walk-on spots and we’ll be at 110.

“It’s a big deal now,” he continued. “You’re on special teams, you have starters on both sides of the ball and they’re logging 15 snaps on teams? The chance to get injured, run down, they're all there. You have to be close to 85 guys. You want to be swimming in that pond, not the 70, 72 pond. We couldn’t have traveled 76 scholarship players if we wanted to last year.”

It’s no secret the last few years haven’t been kind to the Minutemen. With a mere two wins in the last three seasons combined, players are ready to turn the page to 2022 and try to begin the climb of returning the program more toward what it looked like under Brown during his first tenure as head coach.

The hard work to reinvent the program and rewrite the narrative surrounding it begins on Friday. 

“The team is in a good spot,” defensive lineman Billy Wooden said. “It’s been a long grind from spring, winter ball. Now fall camp is here so my mindset is just getting ready to play.” 


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