AMHERST — Charley Molnar didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before last. Friday morning was the first preseason practice for the University of Massachusetts football team, and he had that and a few other firsts — big-picture ones — on his mind. His first season with the Minutemen. The program’s first year in both the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Mid-American Conference. And, of most tangible significance, the season’s first game just 26 days from now.
That’s a lot to be excited for — apparently too excited to lie in bed.
“I was up at around 4 this morning,” said Molnar, the former offensive coordinator at Notre Dame with 18 years of college coaching on his résumé, all as an assistant. (So there’s another first: head coaching job.) He got dressed and left his room to go for a predawn run, and in the hallway he ran into freshman receiver Tajae Sharpe. “He was up before I was,” said the coach with a smile that looked like admiration.
Talk about making a strong first impression. Practice hadn’t even begun, and Sharpe already was on the coach’s good side simply by being excited for the day to begin.
Clearly, enthusiasm for undertaking this big step is going to be a theme for UMass. Once the players took the field at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in 85-degree heat for their first drills since spring practice, the coaching staff had them run plenty of plays over the three-hour session, but was on the lookout for something other than the embodiment of X’s and O’s. “I’m looking to see what kind of effort the guys will give,” said Molnar. “I want to see if we have to drive them or if they will run on their own gas.”
That inner drive, the coach believes, is the essential fuel for the program’s leap from the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision. “The talent will not always be even when we step on the field,” said Molnar, “so we’ve got to make up for that in other ways.”
In the past, UMass has given FBS teams such as Michigan and Kansas State all they could handle. But Molnar insists this season will be a different circumstance. “You can get away with one game where you win or you give them one heck of a battle,” he said. “Your team can bring an A game. Well, when you play 12 games like that in a row, it’s totally different.”
Indeed, when the Minutemen leave the field after the season opener at Connecticut Aug. 30, they’ll begin preparing for a visit by Indiana to their new home, Gillette Stadium, the next week. “You go from one very tough team to another very, very tough team,” said Molnar. “And it goes on and on and on for 12 weeks.”
Kellen Pagel knows a little about those top-level rigors. The junior quarterback transferred before last season from MAC team Bowling Green. He had played sparingly in his one year with the Falcons, but last season won the starting job at UMass. He’s particularly excited for Oct. 30, when his former team visits Gillette, and he gets to show what he can do with Molnar’s spread-’em-out attack. “It’s a great offense,” Pagel said. “Every day we’re trying to get faster and faster.”
Pagel’s not alone in his motivation for the step-up season. Every UMass player — from incoming freshmen to returning starters who were recruited as to play in the FCS, the former Division 1-AA — has something to prove. “In high school, everyone wants to go to Division 1,” said Darren Thellen, the fifth-year senior safety who had a team-leading five interceptions last season. “I feel like everyone at 1-AA feels like they were overlooked and they should be a Division 1 player. Now’s our chance.”