AMHERST — When Ricardo Miller enrolled at Michigan in 2010, he devised a specific, four-year plan.
“First, I wanted to start right away,” the 6-foot-4-inch wide receiver/tight end said. “Then get better each year and graduate as an all-time great.”
But the 18-year-old turned 19, then 20. And the four-star prospect fell behind walk-ons on the depth chart.
In three years, Miller appeared in only 14 games. He never recorded a catch.
Miller knew he could still be good. He just needed a second chance.
The University of Massachusetts, he determined, was the perfect fit.
“They’re trying to prove themselves as a big-time program, and I’m trying to let people know that Ricardo Miller isn’t some forgotten high school recruit,” Miller said. “We can help each other.”
Miller, who is expected to start Saturday’s opener at Wisconsin with tight end Rob Blanchflower banged up, is one of three fifth-year transfers on the UMass roster. They follow three other fifth-year transfers who played for the Minutemen last season.
All came to UMass for different reasons. All provide an immediate on-field boost for the program, which is navigating a rocky transition into FBS, college football’s highest tier.
“In the future, maybe it won’t be as important,” coach Charley Molnar said. “But for a school like us, right now, it’s always a viable option if we can find the right guy.”
Molnar found three of the right guys last season: Deion Walker and Hafis Williams from Notre Dame and Michael Cox from Michigan.
Cox, a Dorchester native, played a limited role for the Wolverines. He wanted to showcase his skills as a featured running back, so he opted for one more season at UMass. After he rushed for 715 yards and five touchdowns with the Minutemen, the New York Giants selected Cox in April’s NFL draft.
“He came here, did his thing, did great,” Miller said. “So he’s the perfect example of what Coach Molnar is trying to do.”
The transfers are all graduate students, immediately eligible to play under the NCAA’s one-time transfer exception rule.
Excluding Miller — who is petitioning for one more year of eligibility — all will play just one season for the Minutemen.
According to John Infante, a compliance expert who manages the Bylaw Blog, fifth-year transfers are a growing trend because the process has simplified.
First, the NCAA mandated a waiver. Then a standard waiver. Now, schools can apply for postgraduate transfers “without going through the process of requesting anything from the NCAA,” Infante said.
“I was surprised by how easy it was,” said David Osei, a 6-4, 280-pound offensive lineman who played at Rutgers before joining the Minutemen this season. “But I’m glad for the opportunity. I just wanted a chance to end things right.”
Osei thought he was done with football.
“I had lost some passion for the game,” Osei said.
He graduated with a year of eligibility remaining because he didn’t want to waste a roster spot.
“But I still lived with my teammates in the spring,” Osei said. “The more they talked about going to practices and the upcoming season, the more I realized I missed it. So I started contacting coaches.”
“I talked to a couple schools,” said Justin Anderson, the 6-5, 280-pound defensive end who played four seasons for Maryland. “But here, Coach Molnar said he could give me an opportunity right away. And that’s all I needed to hear.”
At Maryland, Anderson played for four different defensive coordinators and battled through injuries. It all became too much. In April, he left the team “for personal reasons.”
“When I transferred, it wasn’t about trying to prove other people wrong,” Anderson said. “It’s proving to myself that I still got it. I still can go out there and compete in the top Division 1 level.”
Molnar inherited the program two years ago. The roster consisted of players recruited to play in FCS. The jump to FBS, as expected, has been difficult.
In their first season using Gillette Stadium for home games, the Minutemen were greeted by swathes of empty seats. They were outscored by opponents, 482-152. They won one game.
“I wouldn’t wish [an FBS] transition on anyone,” Molnar said at MAC media day earlier this summer. “Once you go through it, you understand the difficulty of it.”
But the highly energetic Molnar — a 52-year-old New Jersey native fueled by morning runs and an occasional Diet Coke — maintains optimism.
He hired four new coaches this offseason, including the school’s first-ever strength and conditioning coach dedicated solely to football.
He’s trying to build a culture. It’s a culture Miller, Osei, and Anderson are already familiar with.
“The guys on our team right now only have one year of 1-A experience under their belt,” Molnar said. “The transfers have four years of experience. They’ve been there, done that.”
They’ve played meaningful games in big stadiums. They’ve also all earned degrees.
“The three are leaders,” Molnar said. “And add a maturity level to our team as we continue to grow.”
Three other schools — South Alabama, Texas State, and the University of Texas at San Antonio — also began the FBS transition in 2011.
South Alabama utilized the postgraduate transfer exception in adding Virginia quarterback Ross Metheny. But Molnar, it seems, is the only coach to fully embrace the strategy.
“It’s a model I think is working,” Molnar said. “Though I don’t know if it’s something we’ll use forever.”
UMass has been accustomed to recruiting at the FCS level for years. The FBS is new territory.
Molnar is excited to have a roster full of players he recruited, players he can develop for four years. It will take a few years for those recruiting classes to replace the returning roster.
So for now, the fifth-year transfers are stopgaps.
“We only get a short time here, one year maybe two” said Miller. “But we are going to make the most of it. And UMass is going to get the most out of us, too.’’