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2019 is full-on Year Zero for Walt Bell and UMass

Bell has been seen as an up-and-coming coach for years. At UMass, he’ll need to harness every bit of his potential.

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Walt Bell
UMass Athletics

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

For quite a while, coaches and administrators have thought very highly of Walt Bell.

At Southern Miss in 2011, head coach Larry Fedora made him a full-time assistant when he was 26, then brought him to North Carolina the next year when he took the head coaching job in Chapel Hill.

In 2014, Blake Andersen, the new head coach at Arkansas State, named the 29-year old Bell as his offensive coordinator. In 2016, DJ Durkin, the new head coach at Maryland, did the same for the 31-year old Bell.

It’s not hard to see why Bell was quickly moving up the ladder. He’s charming, he’s a charismatic recruiter, he’s ambitious, and at first, at least, he was immensely successful. His two Arkansas State offenses ranked 51st and 56th in Off. S&P+; the Red Wolves ranked 100th the year before he arrived and 113th the year after he left.

At Maryland, however, he produced offenses ranked only 70th and 80th. He still got promoted to Florida State OC in 2018. And after FSU’s worst offensive season in more than 40 years, he still got a head coaching gig this past offseason. And in an area of the country that he’s never coached, no less.

In December 2018, Bell became the 30th head coach in UMass history. Athletic director Ryan Bamford said that Bell had been on his radar screen since Arkansas State. They didn’t work together, but he heard so many good things about Bell at the time that it carried forward nearly five years later.

Again, coaches and administrators have thought very highly of Walt Bell.

The Middle Tennessee grad has never coached north of College Park, but he now takes over one of FBS’ harder jobs. Mark Whipple couldn’t make it work in his second stint as head coach, though he came pretty close.

UMass’ FBS tenure began in 2014 and went horribly; the Minutemen went 2-22 in two years under Charley Molnar before turning back to Whip, the man who had led them to the 1998 FCS national title. They improved from 124th to 99th in S&P+ in his second season and ranked 100th in his fourth year, too. The Minutemen returned almost everyone in 2018. It looked like it was breakthrough time.

It was not. Despite one of the best receivers in the country, UMass went 4-8, beating four horrid teams and losing by an average of 24 points to everyone else. Things never came together as planned, and the 62-year old Whipple stepped down.

Bell inherits a program very much in transition, and he seems to know it. UMass is without star receiver Andy Isabella, quarterbacks Ross Comis and Andrew Ford, leading rusher Marquis Young, and five of its top six havoc creators on defense, and most of Bell’s spring quotes included words like “depth,” or “culture,” or guys doing “a great job of trying to give what we asked of them.” Not a great sign when it comes to immediate success.

That said, there’s a solid and increasingly athletic young core here. Whipple’s own recruiting had picked up in recent years — after averaging 3.3 three-star recruits per season (per the 247Sports Composite) from 2013-15, the Minutemen averaged 8.3 from 2016-18 — and as you would hope to see from a guy with a reputation for strong recruiting, Bell one-upped that out of the gates, signing 12.

There are, by my count, two former three-stars in the QB race, two at running back, 10 in the receiving corps, five on the offensive line, four on the defensive line, four at linebacker, and five in the secondary. Is that enough? Probably not just yet. But quite a few interesting, young players could develop in 2019 while Bell goes out and hunts for more.

Offense

It’s extremely fair to point out exactly what Bell was dealing with at Maryland and FSU. His 2016 Maryland offense saw four different quarterbacks throw at least 33 passes; the Terrapins averaged 37 points per game when Perry Hills was in the lineup for a sustained amount of time and only 7 per game when he wasn’t. In 2017, both sophomore quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome and freshman Kasim Hill showed massive potential early in the season as UMD was scoring 51 on Texas and 63 on Towson. They were both lost for the season by the third game.

At FSU, the QB was healthy but the offensive line was a historically terrible trash heap of injured players and guys who weren’t quite ready for action. The Seminoles might very well start five completely different guys up front this fall.

So Bell was coaching with one hand tied behind his back. You almost have to go back to the Arkansas State days to get a true look at what he might want to accomplish offensively.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that Fredi Knighten, Bell’s ASU quarterback in 2013-14, followed Bell to College Park, Tallahassee, and now Amherst. He is the new running backs coach, and he was a revelation in 2014, throwing for 3,277 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 779 (969 without sacks) and 11 more scores. Bell built an outstanding offense around versatile personnel — running back Michael Gordon rushed for 1,100 yards and caught 25 passes, slot receiver J.D. McKissic caught 52 passes and rushed for 115 yards, etc. Lots of guys touched the ball in lots of different ways.

Massachusetts v Florida International
Brennon Dingle
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

We’ll see about versatility (junior receiver Brennon Dingle caught 19 passes for 269 yards while rushing four times for 72, so there’s that), but while the receiving corps is pretty inexperienced, there appears to be solid big-play potential: senior Sadiq Palmer averaged 15 yards per catch last year, Dingle averaged 14.2, and sophomores Zak Simon and Samuel Emilus combined to catch 30 of 46 balls for 450 yards (15 per catch) and six scores.

Granted, this was all with Isabella serving as a center of gravity for opposing defenses, but they’re still excellent numbers.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Boston College
Sadiq Palmer
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

You still need a quarterback. Ford and Comis are gone after combining for 3,165 yards, 23 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. Ford entered 2018 with pro hopes but tore his ACL midway through the season, and Comis, though more all-or-nothing, did pretty well, too.

Senior-to-be Michael Curtis saw some action, too (primarily in a 49-31 win over Charlotte) and made the most of it, completing 26 of 40 passes for 412 yards. He also enjoyed a 59 percent success rate on 17 rushes, so perhaps he’s got the versatility Bell wants to see. He’ll have to hold off all sorts of challengers in fall camp, however: fellow senior Randall West, junior Mike Fallon, redshirt freshman Jaret Pallotta, and JUCO transfer Andrew Brito could all threaten his first-string status.

The QB might need to carry some weight in the run game, and not only for reasons of philosophy: it’s unclear what UMass has at running back. Senior Nick Orekoya rushed five times for 11 yards last year, and three-star freshman Kevin Brown is an interesting prospect, but that’s almost literally all we know about the position.

I guess we also know that the guys in the backfield will be lined up behind a big, experienced line. Four players with a combined 74 career starts return, and they average 6’5, 316 between them.

Defense

While Bell’s Maryland tenure was a mess of QB injuries and mere glimpses of potential, that time evidently allowed him to build a useful relationship with DBs coach Aazaar Abdul-Rahim.

Originally a D.C. native, Abdul-Rahim takes over as defensive coordinator after spending two years as an Alabama analyst and three at Maryland. His recruiting connections and prowess probably didn’t hurt when it came to landing a pair of star recruits (CB Josh Wallace and WR Jermaine “OC” Johnson) from D.C.-area powerhouse DeMatha Catholic.

UMass v Florida International
Chinedu Ogbonna
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The best thing I can say about the defense Abdul-Rahim and company inherit is that it is a blank canvas. On one hand, 13 players who made at least 6.5 tackles last year return; on the other, you could make the case that last year’s five or six best players do not.

I guess “best” is relative when we’re talking about a defense that ranked 124th in Def. S&P+, but three of the top four defensive backs are gone, and those most responsible for UMass’ lone defensive strength (the Minutemen were 28th in stuff rate and strong in most short-yardage measures) are gone. Bryton Barr, who was responsible for 28.5 of those run stuffs (fifth in FBS), will be particularly missed.

There are at least a few veterans around to anchor things this fall. End Jake Byczko recorded five tackles for loss, junior OLB Chinedu Ogbonna recorded seven, and cornerback Isaiah Rodgers combined three TFLs (most in the secondary) with six passes defensed (second-most). Throw in Penn State linebacker transfer Jarvis Miller, and that’s a decent amount of experience, particularly in the front seven.

Massachusetts v Mississippi State
Isaiah Rodgers
Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

Still, 2019 will be primarily about finding building blocks. Each level of the defense has at least a couple of interesting sophomores who saw the field last year — end Caeleb Washington, tackle Dennis Osagiede, linebackers Xavier Steele and Tyris Lebeau, safety Joseph Norwood, corners Chris Hunt and Justin Lewis — and seeing development from this young core, plus maybe a few true and redshirt freshmen, will be as important as the stops the defense does or doesn’t make in 2019.

Special Teams

Whipple never got anywhere with special teams. The Minutemen ranked between 112th and 125th in Special Teams S&P+ in all five of his seasons. That sets an extremely low bar for new ST coordinator Luke Paschall, whose 2017 Arkansas State unit ranked 40th.

Last year, place-kicker Cooper Garcia was mostly automatic inside of 40 yards but had extremely limited range, and freshman punter George Georgopoulos punted like a freshman. The return game was solid, but both return men (Isabella and Young) are gone. So yeah, another “blank canvas” here.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug at Rutgers 108 -10.1 28%
7-Sep Southern Illinois NR 4.2 60%
14-Sep at Charlotte 120 -4.6 39%
21-Sep Coastal Carolina 116 -1.9 46%
28-Sep Akron 124 2.5 56%
5-Oct at Florida International 88 -19.1 13%
12-Oct at Louisiana Tech 86 -20.0 12%
26-Oct Connecticut 129 7.3 66%
2-Nov Liberty 112 -3.7 42%
9-Nov at Army 80 -21.1 11%
16-Nov at Northwestern 57 -26.7 6%
23-Nov BYU 50 -23.1 9%
Projected S&P+ Rk 125
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 98 / 128
Projected wins 3.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -14.2 (117)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 117
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -8.3
2018 TO Luck/Game +1.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 43% (40%, 45%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 4.0 (0.0)

In last year’s UMass preview, I wrote that “now would be a really, really good time for UMass to be good at football.”

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.

The Minutemen were not good at football last year. They probably won’t be in 2019 either. Even if Bell upgrades the talent (likely) and establishes a level of culture that Whipple could not (no way of telling), it’s going to take a little while. Granted, they’ve probably got a few years before the realignment train starts chugging again.

2019 certainly qualifies as a Year Zero situation for Bell. If he finds versatile components around which he can build an offense, and Abdur-Rahim finds some plain old athletes among his freshman and sophomore defenders, this year will have been a success.

That said, there are certainly some potential wins on a schedule that features seven opponents projected 108th or worse in S&P+. You’re not going to win all of those when you’re projected 125th yourself, but there’s potential for matching last year’s win total while undergoing a youth movement. That wouldn’t be a bad start.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.