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UMass fooball is following the indie script, but will it actually win games?

Mark Whipple has been making sensible decisions in attempting to rebuild the program, but when will his work start to pay off?

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Florida
Adam Breneman
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

On Dec. 19, 1998, Marcel Shipp rushed for 244 yards and three touchdowns as Mark Whipple’s UMass Minutemen — the No. 11 seed in the 1-AA playoffs and 2-9 just a season earlier — surged to an early 38-14 lead and upset Paul Johnson’s Georgia Southern Eagles, 55-43, to win the national title.

GS would get its revenge the next year, beating UMass 38-21 in the quarterfinals on its way to the first of back-to-back titles. The Minutemen would fall into a bit of a funk before re-emerging as contenders in 2003. Whipple left for a job as an NFL assistant; defensive coordinator Don Brown took over and led UMass to a finals appearance in 2006 and a quarterfinal run in 2007. They fell to Appalachian State, 28-17, in the 2006 title game.

Paths have diverged since.

  • Brown is one of the most well-regarded defensive coordinators in FBS; he parlayed a successful stint at Boston College into a job with Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. His first Wolverines defense ranked second in Def. S&P+ in 2016.
  • Johnson left Georgia Southern in 2002 to turn Navy around and has spent the last nine seasons at Georgia Tech, where he has engineered two top-15 finishes and Orange Bowl appearances.
  • Georgia Southern finally made the leap to FBS in 2014, immediately pulling off back-to-back nine-win seasons and becoming a Sun Belt power overnight. Meanwhile, Appalachian State, also an FBS program as of 2014, is 21-5 over the last two seasons.

Considering Whipple’s immediate accomplishments in Amherst, and considering UMass’ consistent success in the FCS ranks, one might assume that their own respective ceilings were similarly high. And maybe they are. But of late, the ceiling has been far less relevant than the floor.

UMass elected to make the leap to FBS soon after the 2006-07 run. But when Brown left to become Maryland defensive coordinator in 2009, his replacement, offensive coordinator Kevin Morris, failed to keep the engine running. He went 16-17 in three years as the Minutemen prepared for the FBS jump, and in a semi-desperate change of script, UMass replaced him with Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar in 2012.

The enthusiastic Molnar said all the right things and talked a big game about where the program could head; he also went 2-22 in two seasons. And after straying so far from both its lineage and its success, the school called on an old name to fix things.

Whipple had spent six seasons as an NFL quarterbacks coach and two as Miami’s offensive coordinator, and in 2014, at age 56, he headed back to Amherst. With UMass leaving its original FBS football home (the MAC) for football independence, Whipple’s job is difficult and undefined, but he seems to be taking pretty logical steps.

  • He’s taken on transfers with decent success — former Penn State tight end Adam Breneman caught 70 balls for UMass last year (and with a whopping 59 percent success rate), former Marshall quarterback Blake Frohnapfel threw for nearly 3,000 yards in 2015, etc.
  • He has recruited pretty well. His 2016 recruiting class ranked No. 82 per the 247Sports Composite; that’s not amazing, but it’s great considering the Minutemen’s recent fortunes and lack of a conference. (His 2017 class ranked No. 115, but part of that was because of size; the per-recruit average was almost identical to UMass’ 2016 class and only a little bit behind that of Temple, another team that has seen fortunes shift drastically over the last decade.)
  • He has embraced indie life. UMass has scheduled regional rivals, fellow independents, and quite a few SEC schools and big-name mid-majors. Whipple and athletic director Ryan Bamford seem to be on the same page regarding ambition and future plans.
  • He even hired Shipp as his running backs coach in 2014, just to complete the circle. (Shipp left for the same position with the New York Jets the next year.)

Now remains only one step: actually winning games. It certainly hasn’t happened yet during Whipple’s second go-round. UMass went 3-9 in both 2014 and 2015, then fell to 2-10 last fall. UMass’ S&P+ ratings were showing hidden progress — the Minutemen rose from 123rd to 101st in 2015 — but they plummeted back to 117th in 2016.

I saw some of this coming: In last year’s UMass preview, I listed reasons for future optimism but noted that, with young players in quite a few positions, 2016 probably wasn’t going to be much fun. I also said that “there's enough young talent to be optimistic about 2017 and beyond.”

Is that still the case? Maybe. Quarterback Andrew Ford seized control of the starting job last fall, and Breneman might be the most efficient tight end in the country. The defense has all the experience it lacked last year. There is a potentially high-competition mix of incumbent upperclassmen and redshirt freshmen in the receiving corps and throughout the defense. As long as the young guys win some of those competitions, there might still be a decent future here. But 2017’s the year we begin to find out, one way or the other.


2016 in review

2016 UMass statistical profile.

In theory, if you’ve got a young team that has to take some lumps to succeed later on, you’d still like to see an upward trajectory. You’d like to see a team that’s better in November than September.

Instead, UMass was almost dismaying in its consistency. It’s hard to argue in favor of a team’s upside when it hits a percentile performance between 18 and 33 percent in nine games. The Minutemen hit 52 percent in a 21-13 win over FIU and 40 percent in a 34-10 win over Wagner; they hit five percent in a 26-7 loss to BC. Otherwise, they were basically the same team, week in and week out.

The defense was absurdly consistent — UMass’ defensive percentile was between 24 and 35 percent 11 times. Aside from a great performance against FIU, it never got better or worse. The offense, at least, grew into itself a bit after a slow start.

  • First three games (1-2): Avg. offensive percentile performance: 20 percent | Yards per play: 3.7
  • Last nine games (1-8): Avg. offensive percentile performance: 48 percent | Yards per play: 5.8

Game 3 was when Andrew Ford took over at quarterback. So that’s probably sustainable growth.


Offense

UMass offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Whipple is an offensive coach at heart. He was offensive coordinator at Division III’s Union college at age 24 and was prolific enough as New Hampshire’s OC in the 1980s that he earned his first head coaching job — at Division II’s New Haven — at age 30. He also doesn’t have an offensive coordinator, preferring to fill that role himself.

UMass’ offense has been perched on the brink of success for a couple of years. I expected pretty big things from the offense in 2015 after it improved from 123rd in Off. S&P+ to 104th in Whipple’s first season. But the Minutemen improved to just 102nd with Frohnapfel behind center. In 2016, with Ford, they were 106th.

Perhaps the lack of regression last year is a good sign; UMass had a sophomore quarterback (Ford), a sophomore running back (Marquis Young), and a sophomore No. 1 receiver (Andy Isabella). Two freshmen combined to start 21 games on the offensive line. Adam Breneman was the go-to veteran, and even he was only a junior.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Brigham Young
Andrew Ford and Andy Isabella
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

UMass does have to replace three starting linemen, but otherwise, the important pieces return. Ford still has plenty of improvement to undergo — he took too many sacks and threw too many picks last year — but still has time to undergo it. And while the veterans are back, he could see some exciting contributions from youngsters.

Take running back Bilal Ally, for instance. The former three-star recruit averaged 5.7 yards per carry in minimal time as a freshman. Sophomore receiver Sadiq Palmer was dinged up and stuck behind upperclassmen as a freshmen but made a lovely, leaping touchdown catch against Mississippi State. Redshirt freshman Brennon Dingle, meanwhile, was a fall camp standout and academic redshirt who also stood out this spring.

Both Palmer and Dingle were, relatively speaking at least, star recruits. So were fellow redshirt freshmen Elijah Robinson and tight ends Avien Peah and Taylor Edwards.

With Young, Breneman, and Isabella back, if two of those youngsters become steady contributors, UMass suddenly has a skill corps with too many weapons for a lot of defenses on the schedule.

The line will determine a lot, of course. UMass was solid on standard downs last year (67th in Standard Downs S&P+), but that doesn’t mean as much when you’re miserable in short-yardage situations (126th in power success rate). Young and Ally could be an explosive duo, but if you’re relying on explosive plays to generate offense instead of efficiency, you’re opening yourself to lots of ups and downs.

Losing three starters from a bad line might not be the worst thing in the world, but in this instance it means that two sophomores (right tackle Jack Driscoll and left guard/392-pound man mountain Raquan Thomas) now hold the lion’s share of the experience. There are former three-stars in the mix — Driscoll, junior Jake Largay (who started six games in 2016), sophomore Mike Yerardi, redshirt freshmen James Reilly and Leyshawn Askew — but they have to produce.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Massachusetts
Marquis Young
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

UMass defensive radar

The stereotype of a head coach who holds onto his offensive duties is that he might not be focusing as much as he should on the other side of the ball. UMass’ defense was good enough to win the 1-AA title in Whipple’s first go-round, but whereas the offense has improved at least a bit under Whipple, the defense has not. It ranked 102nd in Def. S&P+ in Molnar’s last season, and it ranked 103rd in 2016.

To perhaps change things up, Whipple brought in someone new. Ed Pinkham takes over as defensive coordinator after spending the last four seasons as P.J. Fleck’s DC at WMU. It took Pinkham a while to find traction there — WMU ranked between 82nd and 106th in Def. S&P+ during his first three years before rising to 69th in 2016 — but he also has some pre-WMU success on his record: he was Greg Schiano’s last defensive coordinator at Rutgers in 2009-10.

At its best, a Pinkham defense is aggressive and disruptive. Rutgers led the nation in tackles for loss in 2009, and while he never replicated that at WMU, his Broncos did rank No. 38 in havoc rate (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed divided by total plays) and No. 37 in standard downs success rate. UMass (No. 78 in havoc rate, No. 105 in standard downs success rate) would gladly take anything close to that.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at South Carolina
Steve Casali
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

If aggression is the name of the game, there are at least a few interesting pieces around which Pinkham can build. Senior linebackers Steve Casali and Da’Sean Downey had 16.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and six passes defensed last year, and senior safety Jesse Monteiro had 5.5 TFLs and four PDs. Isaiah Rodgers defensed nine passes as a freshman. End Sha-Ki Holines has 16 TFLs in two years.

The best asset for UMass this fall, however, could be simple experience. There are seniors at every level of the defense, and there’s just enough young energy to provide hope. Rodgers could turn into a star, and sophomore tackle Mario Patton is a potentially disruptive bowling ball. Tackle Joe Previte was having a lovely sophomore season before it got cut short by injury. And a pair of JUCO transfers — tackle DaVone Hall and safety Tyler Hayes — will be asked to help quickly.

The line appears most likely to stand out. Holines, senior Ali Ali-Musa, and the youngsters listed above could provide sturdiness for Casali and the linebackers to do some damage. There’s obviously a bit of concern, though, in the simple fact that UMass could end up starting as many as eight seniors. That could provide growth in 2017, but if some of the young three-stars don’t begin to shine, 2018 could send the Minutemen right back into the 100s in the rankings.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Florida
Sha-Ki Holines
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Isaiah Rodgers is a pretty good return man.

There. I just listed UMass’ special teams strengths in 2016. The Minutemen ranked a ghastly 125th in Special Teams S&P+; Logan Laurent and Mike Caggiano combined to make just six of 10 under-40 field goals, only 14 percent of Caggiano’s kickoffs reached the end zone, and while Laurent’s punts were long enough (41.6 yard average), opponents were able to return enough of them to render the Minutemen just 95th in punt success rate. And the “strength” — Rodgers’ returns — provided a kick return success rate ranking of only 64th. Some bad teams can make up ground with sturdy special teams; UMass was not one of them.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
26-Aug Hawaii 109 2.1 55%
2-Sep at Coastal Carolina 114 -1.9 46%
9-Sep Old Dominion 93 -1.7 46%
16-Sep at Temple 67 -16.1 18%
23-Sep at Tennessee 24 -25.6 7%
30-Sep Ohio 103 1.1 52%
14-Oct at South Florida 56 -17.8 15%
21-Oct Georgia Southern 98 -0.4 49%
28-Oct Appalachian State 62 -12.0 24%
4-Nov at Mississippi State 30 -23.0 9%
11-Nov Maine NR 10.2 72%
18-Nov at BYU 46 -19.2 13%
Projected S&P+ Rk 111
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 109 / 102
Projected wins 4.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -16.5 (126)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 97 / 108
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -10 / -4.0
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 79% (74%, 84%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.1 (-1.1)

When Georgia Southern and Appalachian State moved to FBS, they stuck the landing. UMass was an FCS power around the same time as the Eagles and Mountaineers but stumbled badly.

Whipple has seemingly made sensible decisions since coming back to Amherst, but as of yet he has nothing to show for it. I maintain what I said in last year’s preview — that the future isn’t as bleak as you might think — but now’s the year for Whipple to prove that. He’s got a senior-heavy roster and, in theory, some up-and-comers from recent recruiting classes. He’s got a potentially awesome skill corps and a solid QB. He’s got far more seniors on defense than at any point to date. And he’s got a schedule that features both bigger names on the road (Temple, Tennessee, USF, Mississippi State, BYU) and winnable games at home (Hawaii, Old Dominion, Ohio, Georgia Southern, Maine).

S&P+ projects the Minutemen 111th with a likely record of about 4-8. That would technically represent progress, but with a senior-heavy starting lineup, they probably want to exceed that by a decent amount to prove that they’re on the right track.

One other piece from last year’s preview:

If Whipple is able to turn this team back into a competitive team with rankings in the No. 60-90 range, UMass might put together enough interesting wins to garner interest from the AAC, or at least Conference USA.

Independence might not be the long-term goal for UMass, but Whipple is recruiting well enough to win some games and make the Minutemen reasonably attractive if a Group of 5 conference gets looted again at some point. There’s a window of opportunity, but it takes some sturdy faith to assume the program will take advantage. When you’ve won 10 games in five years, you tend to lose the benefit of the doubt.


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