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With Don Brown’s focus firmly on the future, can UMass football right the ship?

Brady Olson has had to scrap all summer to keep his place as UMass' starting quarterback.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Entering its 11th season as an FBS program, Massachusetts football is at a crossroads.

The Minutemen are looking to turn the page after three disastrous years under Walt Bell, during which UMass won just two games and set several records of the wrong variety.

So begins the second Don Brown era, as the most successful coach the program has ever had returns to Amherst to try and lift the program out of the doldrums.

After a whirlwind few months of recruiting, off-season workouts, and training camp, Brown will find out where his team is starting from in Saturday’s season opener at Tulane.


“I think we’re pretty good, but you never know until you go out and play the game,” Brown said. “We’ve done everything we can possibly do. Now it’s just trying to utilize this week to adjust, make sure we’re spot on in the things we’re trying to do against Tulane, but that part we won’t know until we play the game on Saturday. But I really feel good about our preparation and the way our guys have worked.”

Brown has made his name as one of the top defensive coordinators in college football the last decade, most notably guiding Michigan’s defense to national top-10 rankings for four consecutive seasons before being fired in 2020.

At UMass, he’ll take charge of a defense that gave up more points per game than any in college football history in 2019 and didn’t show much improvement from there.

Brown has no interest in looking back.

Brown, seen here last year as an assistant in Arizona, is back for his second stint as head coach at UMass.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

“Guys have given me their best effort. Their attitude’s been really good, Now, we don’t talk about the past,” he said. “You live in the past, you die in the present. I’ve told them: In my experiences here in UMass, I know nothing but winning. I don’t know anything but positivity, so I keep it positive.


“That’s the only way that you can move forward, and give your guys a chance to succeed. Let them clear their heads, and focus on what’s in front of them, not behind them.”

UMass’ biggest transfer splashes came on defense, adding linebacker Zukudo Igwenagu and defensive back Darius Gooden from Rutgers, defensive lineman Marcus Cushnie from Florida State, and defensive back Tyler Rudolph from Penn State.

Brown will largely leave the other side of the ball to offensive coordinator Steve Casula. A decision’s been made on which of the three main candidates — sophomores Brady Olson and Zamar Wise, plus transfer Gino Campiotti — will start at quarterback, but it’s a secret until Saturday.

Olson started most of last season and is the best pure pocket passer, Wise is the biggest threat to make things happen with his legs, and Campiotti rushed for 834 yards at Modesto Junior College last year. The latter two could unseat Olson, with Casula’s love for mobile quarterbacks and read-option concepts apparent. When Casula was at Ferris State in 2018, his three primary quarterbacks threw a combined 363 passes, and kept the ball to run on 343 occasions.

Ellis Merriweather, shown scoring against UConn last October, returns for the Minutemen.J. Anthony Roberts/Associated Press

The ground attack returns senior Ellis Merriweather, who racked up 1,138 yards and five touchdowns last season. Brown is most excited about his tight ends, led by redshirt junior Josiah Johnson and redshirt sophomore Jacob Orlando.

“I think our tight end group is spectacular,” Brown said. “All those guys are good players. They work hard, they do things the right way, and they can do everything you ask tight ends to do. That’s the group, from top to bottom, that’s elite.”


Brown doesn’t know how competitive his team can be, but being competitive at all would be a significant improvement. The Minutemen are yet to surpass four wins since making the move to FBS, and any dreams of winning seasons or bowl games will be on hold until UMass can prove it can hold its own at this level. Brown likes the Minutemen’s chances.

“I feel like we’ve got a group of guys that are driven,” Brown said. “They want to play well, they want to execute at a high level. They want to win. Their attitude’s in the right place, the way they’ve worked ... it’s pretty impressive. I think we’re ready.”

Amin Touri can be reached at