Blake Frohnapfel believes the greatest chance he ever took was on himself.
For two seasons at Marshall, the 6-foot-6-inch Frohnapfel was the backup quarterback to 2012 Conference USA Most Valuable Player Rakeem Cato. Frohnapfel flashed brilliance in limited time as conductor of the Thundering Herd’s spread offense, completing 35 of 45 passes for 386 yards, with five touchdowns to only two interceptions.
But the Stafford, Va., native knew after his freshman season that he wanted the opportunity to look elsewhere, so he completed his undergraduate degree in three years.
Carrying an atypical two years of eligibility, he began scouring for challenging business programs at schools where his football talents could make an immediate impact.
“I knew I wanted to go to a school with a good business school, a good MBA program,” said Frohnapfel. “So really what I did was I went down MBA rankings and found schools that had some sort of quarterback depth issue.
“I went through the list, found the schools, made a list, and UMass was on it.”
Seven games into his tenure at the University of Massachusetts, it’s hard to imagine Frohnapfel having a more profound impact on the Minutemen’s offense.
With more than 2,100 yards passing and an 18-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Frohnapfel has crafted one of the finest seasons of any quarterback to don the maroon and white.
Coach Mark Whipple saw signs of the potential early on, visiting Huntington, W.Va., to see Frohnapfel throw after hearing rave reviews from Bill Legg, the offensive coordinator at Marshall.
“When I went and saw Fro, I just said, ‘This is our guy,’ ” Whipple said. “I liked his attitude. The people at Marshall didn’t want him to leave, and his goals were to be the leader of the program.”
Frohnapfel made an official visit the following Saturday. Come Sunday night, he was committed to Amherst.
“All [Whipple] really saw was my film, and yet he seemed like he was so confident in what I could do coming here and what I could do for the offense, for the program, for the school,” said Frohnapfel. “Having someone like that who has that much confidence in you made me want to be a part of that.”
By spring, Frohnapfel was dissecting film of the Minutemen’s scrimmages. He noted the way receivers ran their routes and their mannerisms on the field.
Frohnapfel subsequently moved into a house with center Matt Sparks and guards Josh Bruns and Fabian Hoeller. They learned the technicalities of the pro style offense, rearranging the furniture to visualize the what-ifs that come with different defensive schemes.
“It definitely helped our chemistry,” said Sparks. “I was with him 24/7 in the summer, so I really got to know him, what he would do in certain plays. We were all on the same page, all of us.”
Despite instantaneous chemistry on offense, Frohnapfel and the Minutemen started the season with six straight losses, each seemingly more heartbreaking than the last.
The defense couldn’t hold a second-half lead against Colorado. A missed field goal handed a win to Vanderbilt. Frohnapfel threw for a school-record 589 yards and five touchdowns against Bowling Green, yet a fumble late in regulation snuffed what could have been a winning drive.
But maybe no loss hurt quite like the one to Miami of Ohio. Coming in with the nation’s longest losing streak, the RedHawks defeated UMass, 42-41, courtesy of a goal-line stand as time expired. In defeat, Frohnapfel accrued another 389 yards and four scores.
“He came into my office on Sunday after the Miami game,” Whipple recalled, “and he said, ‘Coach, I just want to win. What else can I do?’
“I just laughed and said, ‘You threw for a thousand yards and nine touchdowns in two games. We scored 83 points. We’ve just got to find a way. I’ve got to work harder, you’ve got to work harder, and we’ll do it together to find a way.’ ”
The hard work finally paid dividends last Saturday at Kent State. Frohnapfel threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns while sophomore tailback Lorenzo Woodley logged 160 yards and a score on the ground as the Minutemen downed the Golden Flashes, 40-17.
Now, with Eastern Michigan traveling to Gillette Stadium, the goal is to earn the program’s first multi-win season since making the jump to FBS in 2012.
With five games remaining on the schedule, Frohnapfel’s first-year accomplishments are impressive.
Currently sixth in the nation in passing yards (2,146), he is the first UMass quarterback to throw for 2,000 yards in his first seven games. Another 482 yards and he will occupy the No. 10 spot in program history for career passing yards.
Add an additional offseason of growth and familiarity, and there’s a feeling that this is only the start of something much bigger.
“When I left Marshall, I basically left with little film of myself, but I knew I could play, and I had confidence in myself,” said Frohnapfel. “I came up here alone, 13 hours away and 750 miles, to come up here and take a shot on myself.
“As a quarterback, you have to have confidence in yourself. I took a chance, and it’s working out.”