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UMass football is set to open — and perhaps close — its season Saturday

Coach Walt Bell is eager to continue his rebuild of the UMass football program.
Coach Walt Bell is eager to continue his rebuild of the UMass football program.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

While it could be a one-game season, the UMass football team is thrilled to suit up for Saturday’s opener at Georgia Southern (4 p.m. on ESPN2).

After the university reversed course on its decision to cancel the season Sept. 21, and Georgia Southern’s game this week was postponed because of coronavirus concerns with its opponent, Appalachian State, UMass announced last Thursday that the Minutemen would travel to Statesboro, Ga., for what is currently their only officially scheduled contest of the season.

“We’ll play anybody, anytime, anywhere,” UMass second-year coach Walt Bell said on a conference call Tuesday.

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“Just having the opportunity to be back and play football games, I could care less who we schedule. Let’s go play, let’s go improve, let’s go compete.”

Bell, a former wide receiver at Middle Tennessee State, recently served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Florida State, Maryland, and Arkansas State. He would not officially name a starting quarterback for Saturday’s contest, but Milton’s Mike Fallon currently sits atop the depth chart.

‘“We’ll play anybody, anytime, anywhere. ... Just having the opportunity to be back and play football games, I could care less who we schedule. Let’s go play, let’s go improve, let’s go compete.”’

UMass coach Walt Bell

Fallon is a 6-foot-2-inch, 205-pound redshirt senior who transferred from Sacred Heart ahead of the 2017-18 school year, and saw his first game action last season in a 37-29 win over Akron Sept. 28. That proved to be the Minutemen’s sole win in a 1-11 campaign.

Bell indicated that he wants to establish a strong rushing attack to take the pressure off his quarterback, whether it’s Fallon, redshirt sophomore Josiah Johnson, or freshman Will Koch.

“[We will go] as deep into the playbook as you can through 18 practices,” said Bell.

“I’m excited to see those [quarterbacks] play and hopefully the 10 other guys around him are able to take some of the burden off that guy and let him play winning football.”

Running back Ellis Merriweather, a 6-2, 227-pound junior transfer from Garden City Community College in Kansas, looks to spearhead the ground attack.

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“I’m a freight train,” said Merriweather, a member of the 2018 Garden City team that went 8-1 and reached the Junior College Athletic Association national championship game.

Walt Bell looks on before the start of a 2019 game against Northwestern.
Walt Bell looks on before the start of a 2019 game against Northwestern.Jim Young/Associated Press

On his new teammates voting him as one of five captains, Merriweather said, “I do my best to go out there every day and handle my business and make sure everybody else around me is doing their job as well, because the most important part is us working together as a unit, so I don’t mind giving some extra effort to try and pick some other guys up if they need it.”

This will be the fifth meeting between UMass and Georgia Southern. The teams have split the previous four, with UMass topping Southern, 55-43, in the 1998 Division 1-AA/FCS national championship game.

Southern more recently defeated UMass, 34-13, during the 2018 season.

While UMass is listed as a 30-point underdog, Bell hopes this road game will provide invaluable experience as he looks to rebuild the program.

“All those reps, all that preparation, all those learning experiences that you have … are all failures you have to have to move forward as a young football player and a football team,” said Bell. “That’s going to make our program better in the long term.

"The vision of what we want this program to be is a very large, very long, very blue-collar, run-heavy, physical football team. A team that can win games in November in the elements.

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"That’s what we’ve been trying to build since we got here, and starting to see the early signs of that, to me, is just really exciting.”