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UMass football out to improve in 2nd season

Coach Charley Molnar believes UMass is closing the gap after its first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

matthew cavanaugh for the boston globe / file 2012

Coach Charley Molnar believes UMass is closing the gap after its first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

When Charley Molnar walks around downtown Boston, he is invariably stopped by someone who recognizes him.

That no longer surprises the New Jersey native, entering his second season as the UMass football coach.

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What is shocking? Topics fans want to discuss.

“Not only do they know our players, but they even know the names of guys we are targeting as recruits,” Molnar said. “It wasn’t like that before. And that speaks to where we’re at right now. People are excited about our program. They want to talk about our program.”

Two seven-figure donations, three high-profile transfers, and a few preseason accolades tend to have that effect.

Good news is always welcome for UMass, which stumbled through its inaugural season in 2012 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football’s highest tier.

Yet the timing of these announcements is especially important.

Six weeks before kickoff, the Minutemen have momentum.

“It didn’t happen fortuitously,” Molnar said. “Each of those events were cultivated over time and nurtured every step of the way. But they give us a big push as we head into the new season.”

Start with the donations. The school spent millions to upgrade the football program. It was met with a one-win season and disappointing attendance in the first year playing at Gillette Stadium.

That didn’t stop two wealthy alumni from pledging support.

Ed Ward, a long-time UMass supporter, committed $2.25 million to the athletic department in June.

Meanwhile UMass graduate Martin Jacobson — along with his brother, Richard, a Michigan graduate — pledged $2.5 million. The new press and skybox complex at McGuirk Alumni Stadium will be named after the brothers, business partners at a sports apparel company.

The gifts come in conjunction with the school’s UMass Rising campaign, which hopes to raise $300 million by 2016, including $33 million for athletics.

“Our hope is that by giving back, others will come forward and join us,” Martin Jacobson said in a statement released by the university. “I would like to see the whole community get behind the program.”

Said Molnar: “A program like ours constantly needs to be energized to remind people that this is a program that’s going places.”

The Minutemen finished 1-11 last season, outscored by opponents, 482-152.

The on-field losses were expected. A recent NCAA study tracked 19 schools that jumped from FCS to FBS between 1978 and 2010.

Among the findings: Average winning percentages fell from 55.7 percent to 44.8 percent.

But Molnar — and the donors — exhibit optimism for 2013.

Three players joined the team this summer who know what it’s like to play big-time football.

The trio of transfers are graduate students, immediately eligible to play under the NCAA’s one-time transfer exception rule.

David Osei is a 6-foot-4 inch, 280-pound offensive lineman from Rutgers. Ricardo Miller, from Michigan, can play tight end or wide receiver. Justin Anderson, a 6-5, 280-pound defensive end, played for Maryland.

“They’ve all played in bowl games, they’ve all played in huge stadiums and they’ve all earned a degree,” Molnar said. “These guys have a maturity level that can help our young team grow. They are going to be leaders.”

The model is already in place. In 2012, Michael Cox (Michigan), Deion Walker (Notre Dame) and Hafis Williams (Notre Dame) came to UMass.

Cox was drafted by the New York Giants in April.

Also encouraging for next season?

Anthony Dima was named to the Outland Trophy Award Watch List for the country’s top interior lineman. Colter Johnson is a Ray Guy Award Watch List nominee for the nation’s top punter.

Molnar knows preseason accolades don’t mean much. And he knows it’s not going to be a magical worst-to-first transformation.

Transitioning into FBS is hard and the Minutemen accepted the challenge whole-heartedly. Their out of conference schedule in the next five years? A roll call of college football’s elite: Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Notre Dame, and Florida.

But slowly, Molnar feels he is closing in on the gap.

He’s now been through three recruiting cycles. Each time he said he has been able to hold interest of top recruits for longer.

Eventually, they will choose UMass.

“As a coach, I had to paint a picture of what the program was going to look like,” Molnar said. “I had to see around the bend when nobody else could. Now a lot of people are seeing it there, too.”

And, it seems, they are excited about what lies on the other side.

Emily Kaplan can be reached at emily.kaplan@globe.com.
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