Twins have a way of knowing what each other is thinking. Eric Frohnapfel could sense that his brother was thinking about making a change.
But he didn’t want to push him either way.
They had played football at essentially every level together.
“I’d been with him every practice, every game, every full game I ever played in my life,” Blake Frohnapfel said. “It’s going to be weird not having him at practice.”
They arrived at Marshall together three years ago, Blake as a 6-foot-6-inch, 225-pound quarterback with the potential to run a program at some point, Eric as a 6-7 tight end whose talent was matched only by his reliability.
Blake redshirted his first year. Eric caught nine passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
Blake continued to wait patiently, showing flashes of what he could offer in cameos such as the 18-for-23, 180-yard, two-touchdown performance against Western Carolina in 2012. Eric became an everyday player.
It was obvious Blake wanted more, but with the player ahead of him on the depth chart, Rakeem Cato, throwing for 3,916 yards and 39 touchdowns and winning Conference USA Player of the Year last season, it was apparent he had an immovable object in his way.
Blake started toying with the idea of playing somewhere else, somewhere he could lead his own team.
He ran it by his twin.
“Really with him, he kind of was like, ‘You know, Blake, you’ve got to do whatever you want. I’ll support you either way. If you want to stay, great. I love having you here, but if you feel like you have to leave, do what you feel is best,’ ” Blake said. “I think he did things the right way. He wasn’t really pushing me either way. Just kind of saying, ‘Do what you think is best for you.’ ”
In the end, Blake found a UMass team in the thick of a culture shift after three straight losing seasons and back-to-back 1-11 campaigns.
Leaving a program he loved for a program he didn’t know was its own process, but it’s a challenge for which Frohnapfel and UMass coach Mark Whipple believe he’s ready.
“The ability to be in charge, to be the quarterback of a football program, I think that’s what he wanted,” Whipple said. “Marshall people didn’t want him to go, but he didn’t want to wait a year to become the quarterback. It was kind of a nice fit, good marriage.”
The first step for Frohnapfel was telling the Marshall coaching staff. From there, he found out that the idea of transferring seemed easier on paper than in practice.
“It was actually a lot more stressful than I thought,” said Frohnapfel, who will lead the Minutemen against Boston College in Saturday’s opener. “I figured it would be, I would say I was going to transfer and schools were going to come to me. But really, I had to kind of reach out to other schools and kind of find my way that way.”
As it turned out, Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg had a relationship with Whipple.
“He was able to kind of tell him a little bit about me,” Frohnapfel said.
A week after Frohnapfel made it known that he wanted to leave, Whipple visited Huntington, W.Va.
“Me and him just spoke about what he expected of the quarterback of his offense and what his offense would be like,” Frohnapfel said. “I kind of figured it would be a good fit after talking to him.”
Frohnapfel was lured in by Whipple’s offensive knowledge and his résumé — not just from his first stint with the Minutemen, when his high-powered offenses pushed them to 49 wins in six seasons, but from his time as offensive coordinator at both Miami and in the NFL with the Browns.
“Just having a coach who’s more focused on the offensive side of the ball, and particularly a quarterback coach, as a quarterback that interests you, because you know that he knows a lot about the position and the technique, the overall schemes that he’s looking for,” Frohnapfel said. “Just kind of having that guy to talk to. It’s not just your quarterback coach or your offensive coordinator, you’re having a guy where it’s really coming from the top. That welcome knowledge kind of makes you feel comfortable as a quarterback.”
Whipple was impressed by Frohnapfel’s willingness to learn.
“I think we kind of just hit it off,” Whipple said. “I liked his honesty, I think he liked my honesty. Just stars aligned and it was the right time.”
Knowing he was on track to graduate from Marshall in three years, UMass also worked because it offered Frohnapfel a graduate program in business and sports management.
As perfect as the match seemed, Whipple was upfront with the fact that Frohnapfel would have incumbents to compete with for the job, namely junior A.J. Doyle, who threw for 1,274 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions a year ago.
“We told him that we had somebody coming back, there was a couple quarterbacks in the program and he had to prove himself,” Whipple said.
First he had to get his bearings. Making the transition meant more than just learning the playbook. It meant learning names.
“It was difficult at times because there are so many new things going on where I’m trying to run the offense and I’m trying to ask a receiver what’s happening on a play and it’s the first week and I’m not even sure what his name is,” Frohnaphfel said. “It’s like little things like that. Or we’re going to meet at the dining hall and I don’t even know where it is.
“So I’m sitting there and I’m googling the UMass-Amherst map so I can figure out where I’m going. So it’s stuff like that where, you’re not used to it and you’re just kind of in a very unfamiliar environment, where I kind of had to learn quick.”
Frohnapfel arrived in Amherst in May to get a headstart. When the rest of the team arrived for summer practices, it took time for Frohnapfel to shake his nerves.
“In terms of practice, the first week, I felt really nervous,” he said. “Just kind of feeling like I was trying to prove myself. I was probably trying to do too much in practice.”
Eventually, Whipple could see him becoming more comfortable with himself and his teammates.
“Just the way he threw the ball and managed the huddle and made good decisions and learned from some mistakes that he made, so those are things that all good quarterbacks do and he tended to improve each day,” Whipple said.
Last week, after watching Doyle and Frohnapfel battle, Whipple named Frohnapfel the starter. He’ll be the third different quarterback to start a season opener for the Minutemen in the past four years.
“He’s a big, strong guy, [who] can run some,” Whipple said. “I think he’s accurate. He’s kind of all those things we saw on tape when we watched him. He’s a tremendous person, very smart, and as we’ve gone through the process this summer, and especially the fall camp, I think he’s become more of a leader.’’
His challenge will be to breathe life into an offense that finished near the bottom of the FBS rankings in scoring, total offense, and passing last season.
“I feel the sky’s the limit for us,” Whipple said. “I think everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing. Just making sure we play all together on certain plays. If we can play all together and everyone does their jobs right, then obviously it’ll go smoothly.’’
While Blake will be trying to help the Minutemen spoil BC’s opener, Eric Frohnapfel and Marshall will be trying to bury Miami University in their opener for the second straight year.
It’ll be different checking in on games instead of comparing notes, Blake said.
But, being 22 minutes older, he’ll take it as his job to shoot the first text.
“I’m still the older brother,” Blake said. “So I’m checking up on him.”
He’s got the faith off his coach and his offense. More than that, he’s starting to figure out his way around campus.
“I know a little bit,” he said. “Every now and then, people will say a building and I’m like, ‘Yeah . . . I don’t know where that is.’ But for the most part, I’m good on everything.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.