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Now would be a really, really good time for UMass to be good at football

Mark Whipple nearly engineered a UMass breakthrough in 2017 and returns almost all of last year’s stars. Now’s the time to show proof of concept.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

I spoke recently with Phil Estes, Brown University’s head coach for the last 20 years, for an unrelated project. As we were wrapping up the interview, I brought up UMass head coach Mark Whipple, with whom Estes worked at two different career stops — he was New Hampshire offensive line coach when Whipple was offensive coordinator, and he was a Brown assistant when Whipple was Brown head coach from 1994-97.

Estes was effusive: “I think it’s always gonna be swimming upstream (for UMass at the FBS level) because they’re independent, and they’re always going to be playing teams that are looking for a win. But I’ll tell you what: I would never, ever underestimate Mark Whipple.

“I think he’s an offensive genius,” Estes continued. “He can do a lot with a little, and I just think he’s an outstanding coach. There are so many games where it came down to a touchdown. Tennessee last year! They had the ball with an opportunity to beat Tennessee.”

Whipple, now 61, won an FCS national title in his first UMass stint (with current Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown running his defense), then bounced around the NFL ranks as an assistant for a while. He dropped back down to college to become Randy Shannon’s offensive coordinator for a couple of seasons, then went back up to the NFL until UMass called. He moved back to Amherst to take on an impossible salvage job.

After going 2-22 in their first two years of FBS existence under Charley Molnar, the Minutemen brought Whipple back to town, and he won just eight games in his first three seasons. They rose to 101st in S&P+ in 2015 but fell back to 117th after losing a ton of production. In last year’s UMass preview, I wrote that I liked the script that Whipple was following in attempting to build a foundation and that 2017 was the year we’d find out if it had any hope of working.

We saw what we needed to see. I think.

Last fall, UMass rose from 117th to 83rd in S&P+. The offense improved by 40 spots in Off. S&P+ (from 106th to 66th), while the defense rose by 22 in Def. S&P+ (from 103rd to 81st). They were close to a breakthrough on multiple occasions but just couldn’t pull off an upset. They lost at Temple by eight and indeed had the ball down just four against Tennessee on multiple occasions but couldn’t get the points they needed in a 17-13 loss. The next week, they hosted an Ohio team that was much better than Tennessee and lost a 58-50 track meet.

UMass was so close to something but started 0-6 all the same. But instead of collapsing down the stretch, the Minutemen charged. They crushed Georgia Southern and upset an awesome Appalachian State at home, then gave Mississippi State a fight in Starkville before falling, 34-23. They beat Maine and upset BYU in Provo (I guess that was an upset?), then fell in a shootout against FIU in the season finale.

  • First 6 games (0-6): Avg. score: Opp 33, UMass 26 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.8, UMass 5.6 | Avg. percentile performance: 37% (52% offense, 40% defense)
  • Last 6 games (4-2): Avg. score: UMass 36, Opp 31 | Avg. yards per play: UMass 6.5, Opp 5.7 | Avg. percentile performance: 57% (61% offense, 53% defense)

UMass improved a little bit on both sides of the ball and began figuring out how to close games. And now most of an exciting passing game, and most of an almost equally exciting pass defense, return. UMass gets almost all of last year’s offense back, and if a couple of young defensive ends step up, the defense could maintain last year’s momentum as well.

Whipple has a near-impossible task in establishing an independent brand for UMass football, but S&P+ gives his Minutemen a decent shot at bowl eligibility this year. I’m not sure what record they would have to actually hit to draw a bowl’s attention without conference ties, but ... baby steps.

S&P+ has them favored in six games and a one-possession underdog in three others. If a breakthrough’s coming in Amherst, it’s probably coming this season.


2017 UMass offensive radar

Before there was Chip, there was Whip.

Chip Kelly gets a lot of the credit for making New Hampshire football a name; the UCLA head coach played for UNH in the late-1980s, then eventually served as offensive coordinator for eight years, developing all of the spread and tempo concepts that would serve him so well at Oregon and earn him a shot as an NFL head coach. But to Estes, Whipple had to lay the groundwork for that innovation to happen.

“Mark brought the forward pass to UNH,” he says. “UNH was a Penn State, Joe Paterno-style team of run and play-action (passing). They really didn’t have the drop-back game when I played or coached there. And then Whip came in and really started spreading it out.”

The forward pass almost brought UMass quite a few wins in 2017. Andrew Ford, who seized control of the starting QB job early in his freshman season, went from good to awesome during the Minutemen’s late run of wins. He suffered a neck injury late in the App State win and missed the Mississippi State game (with Ford, UMass really could have thrown a scare into Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs).

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

Of course, Ford was good all year. He threw 22 touchdown passes to just four picks, and while his passer rating improved a little bit during UMass’ late run, the ground game finally started carrying its weight late.

Marquis Young and a young offensive line found their groove at the season’s midway point; he averaged 4.1 yards per carry during the 0-6 start, then averaged 6.6 thereafter. He had at least 100 yards in three of the four wins, plus a combined 214 yards in the shootout losses to MSU and FIU.

Young is the ultimate all-or-nothing back. Of 63 FBS players with at least 180 carries (not including QB sacks), his minus-9.5 percent marginal efficiency ranked last, as did his 28 percent opportunity rate (percentage of carries that gain at least five yards). His plus-0.26 marginal explosiveness, however? Third behind only Stanford’s Bryce Love and SDSU’s Rashaad Penny. When he found open field, he exploded.

Ford’s back. Young’s back. All but one lineman is back, including two two-year starters. Every wideout is back, including 1,000-yard receiver Andy Isabella and a possession option in junior Sadiq Palmer, who could make the loss of star tight end Adam Breneman easier to absorb.

Breneman’s one of only two starters gone (along with tackle Jack Driscoll, who transferred to Auburn), and they’re damn near the only members of last year’s two-deep gone. Understudies like junior running back Bilal Ally and sophomore receivers Jessie Britt and Brennon Dingle (who combined for 752 yards at 15 yards per catch) are back, and former Syracuse running back Jordan Fredericks joins the mix as well.

This is an absolutely loaded offense, in other words. The last step in its development: figuring out how not to move backwards quite as much. There were big plays aplenty, but the Minutemen ranked 120th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 120th in Adj. Sack Rate.

Whipple hasn’t recruited nearly as well up front as with the rest of the offense. Per the 247Sports Composite, Ford was a mid-three-star recruit, and almost every skill guy mentioned above, sans Britt, was a three-star prospect; the average Composite rating of the six returning linemen with starting experience, however, was only 0.7723, well below the three-star designation. He has to hope that extreme continuity, plus a little bit more maturation from Young, creates more consistency in the ground game. If the Minutemen aren’t moving backwards quite as much, they could threaten 35 points per game or higher.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at South Carolina
Marquis Young
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports


2017 UMass defensive radar

Whipple brought in another former UNHer last fall. When P.J. Fleck moved from Western Michigan to Minnesota after 2016, he didn’t take defensive coordinator Ed Pinkham with him. So Whip swooped in.

The 64-year old Pinkham coached with Whipple and Estes at UNH — first as DBs coach, then as defensive coordinator — in the 1980s. He spent 12 years as Colgate’s DC and two each at Rutgers and Elon before landing with Fleck at WMU. His last WMU defense ranked 44th in passing success rate; his first UMass defense ranked 22nd.

UMass opponents completed just 53 percent of their passes with a 118.9 passer rating last fall; take out the first and last games of the season (the Minutemen got torched by Hawaii and FIU), and those numbers fall to 49.5 percent and 104.4, respectively. Mississippi State star quarterback Nick Fitzgerald went just 14-for-25 for 139 yards and two picks. (He also rushed for 135 yards, but you get the point.)

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at South Carolina
Isaiah Rodgers (39)
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Pinkham has to replace a dynamite strong safety (Jesse Monteiro) and a solid No. 3 cornerback (Jackson Porter), but that’s basically it. Corners Isaiah Rodgers and Lee Moses are back after combining for 4.5 tackles for loss and 27 passes defensed, and free safety Tyler Hayes (three TFLs, five passes defensed) is back, too. The addition of UConn transfer Brice McAllister should help, and junior safety Bakhari Goodson could be disruptive in a larger role.

Basically, if the front seven holds up, the secondary could thrive once again. But that’s certainly an “if.”

Pinkham attempted to combine aggression with aggression — UMass ranked 28th in stuff rate, making just as many big run stops as opponents were making on Young and the Minutemen’s run game. But they got gashed quite a bit, too. And just imagine how good the secondary could have been if UMass hadn’t ranked 115th in passing downs sack rate.

UMass got most of its front-seven havoc from five guys, and only two return. Senior linebackers Bryton Barr and Jarell Addo combined for 16 TFLs, six sacks, and eight passes defensed, and Barr was the team’s second-best pass rusher. But replacing tackle Ali Ali-Musa and ends Da’Sean Downey and Sha-Ki Holines will be tricky, and good linebackers only mean so much if the line doesn’t do its job.

Three young reserves (ends Jack Byczko and Leon Flanagan Jr. and tackle Charly Timite) each made a few havoc plays and could blossom. Flanagan had a sack and a pick in the BYU win, and Whipple signed three three-star freshman linemen and got a nice spring contribution from redshirt freshman tackle Chris DiTommaso. So maybe the line holds up. But it’s not a given.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Brigham Young
Bryton Barr (44)
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Whipple’s next good special teams unit will be his first. The Minutemen haven’t ranked higher than 112th in Special Teams S&P+ in any of Whip’s four seasons, and despite a solid return game, they ranked just 115th last year. The coverage units were miserable — 13.4 yards per punt return (120th in FBS), 23.3 yards per kick return (101st). And while punter Logan Laurent had a solid leg and did pretty well in taking over place-kicking duties from struggling freshman Michael Schreiner, he’s gone. So is Schreiner.

Some combination of Isaiah Rodgers, Jessie Britt, Marquis Young, and Andy Isabella should produce solid returns again. But this might not be the year UMass cracks double digits in the special teams rankings.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
25-Aug Duquesne NR 16.4 83%
1-Sep at Boston College 48 -14.2 21%
8-Sep at Georgia Southern 106 -1.7 46%
15-Sep at Florida International 120 2.6 56%
22-Sep Charlotte 126 10.0 72%
29-Sep at Ohio 68 -10.4 27%
6-Oct USF 56 -7.7 33%
20-Oct Coastal Carolina 118 6.9 66%
27-Oct at Connecticut 124 4.5 60%
3-Nov Liberty 115 6.6 65%
10-Nov BYU 76 -4.1 41%
17-Nov at Georgia 6 -32.3 3%
Projected S&P+ Rk 102
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 83 / 113
Projected wins 5.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -12.7 (123)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 116 / 110
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / -0.3
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (87%, 55%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (-1.2)

This would be a very good time for UMass to figure itself out.

Estes is right that Whipple is playing a very difficult hand right now; the MAC obviously wasn’t a great fit for the Minutemen when they first entered FBS, and their horrid play assured that they weren’t a great fit for the MAC, either. But after the turn of the 2020s, when the Big 12’s secondary rights deal expires and the Pac-12 either figures out a healthier network situation or starts from scratch, we could see another go-round of conference realignment.

No one knows what future realignment will look like, but a UMass that has its act together in football could be attractive to an AAC (which is headquartered in nearby Providence) or Conference USA. One that doesn’t will face either permanent independent life or a move back to FCS.

I do think Whip is close to a breakthrough, but if it’s going to happen, it probably needs to happen in 2018. There will be a bit of a setback in 2019 when Ford and quite a few other key contributors graduate, but a nice 2018 could rejuvenate recruiting (UMass went from 11 three-star signees in 2016 to eight in 2017 and six in 2018) and provide a path forward.

Whipple’s performing well in a really difficult situation. This needs to be the year the hard work pays off.

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