AMHERST — When he was directing traffic in practice — steering teammates in the right direction, trouble-shooting questions about the playbook, making sure every piece of the University of Massachusetts offense was in the right place — Ross Comis noticed something.
It was his voice. It had more weight to it than it did a year ago.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t doing the same things last season. But he was playing behind starter Blake Frohnapfel.
“When you back up and you talk, they listen to you, but it’s different,” said the sophomore quarterback. “As a backup, you’re still a leader but you always have to take a back seat to the starter because he’s the guy in charge.”
This year, Comis has the keys to a UMass team transitioning out of the Mid-American Conference and into independence while still trying to get on solid ground in its fifth season at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
One of the first things he realized was how much farther his words traveled.
“This year, from Day 1, I’ve been more vocal definitely,” he said. “When I talk, these guys are eyes on me, they listen to me, and they trust me. From Day 1, you can see the different change in the way that people look at me and trust me behind center.”
Comis will be in charge of a team coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons after back-to-back 1-11 seasons. On top of that, he’ll have to fill the void left by Frohnapfel, who in two years scribbled his name all over the Minutemen’s record book.
“I think they’re somewhat trying to get to know Ross,” said coach Mark Whipple. “He’s a different player.”
There is an adjustment for Whipple as well. The last time he could remember spending three seasons with the same quarterback was when he was quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers (2004-06).
“I really haven’t had a guy for three years since Ben [Roethlisberger],” he said.
The only quarterback he’d coached as long at the college level was Jason McCullough during his stint at Brown in the mid-1990s.
From the time Frohnapfel came to Amherst after transferring from Marshall in 2014, he essentially became an extension of Whipple on the field. Whipple called him the best quarterback he’d coached in his two stints at UMass.
Frohnapfel threw for 3,345 yards and 23 touchdowns his first season with the Minutemen and put himself on the NFL radar.
But Comis came in with Frohnapfel, redshirting his freshman season, and learning the ins and outs of Whipple’s offense while waiting in the wings.
“I think that helps the system,” Whipple said. “You know each other.”
Familiarity is one thing. Experience is another.
Comis’s on-field action amounts to only the six games he appeared in last season. The most passes he’s thrown were the eight in mop-up duty against Notre Dame and Colorado. He threw a pair of TD passes.
“Ross got a lot of work last year, when Fro was hurt and didn’t practice a lot at the end of the year,” Whipple said. “So Ross got a lot of the first-team reps at the end of the spring. So he’s been doing well. He’s just improving every day, so I feel good about that situation.”
Part of that process seemed like it would be competing with junior college transfer Andrew Ford and redshirt freshman Randall West.
“Any time you’ve got a guy like Andrew and Randall to compete with you, they make you better,” Comis said. “My mind-set hasn’t changed since Day 1 and I’m just getting better and better by the day.”
But Comis has been getting nearly all the starter’s reps since the Minutemen opened camp this month, and Whipple made it clear early that Comis would be the one under center when the Minutemen open the season at Florida on Sept. 3.
“Everybody knows he’s going to start the game, finish it — unless we don’t block for him,” Whipple said. “But it’s been good, I feel good about that situation.”
Before, Comis was soaked in a scheme custom-fitted for Frohnapfel. Now, UMass’s system is being built around him.
“All of his plays are cut up,” Whipple said. “He watched them and I watched them. Some of the things he likes and doesn’t like and we’re starting to put a plan together for the first few weeks of the season and putting those into place in practice now. So we’ve got a pretty good idea.”
Comis’s strength is his mobility. He came out of Weirton (W.Va.) Madonna High School touted for his dual-threat abilities after throwing for 1,688 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushing for 1,942 yards and 35 touchdowns his senior year. Frohnapfel’s style was more of a traditional pocket passer, but Comis looked for ways to incorporate the contrast into his game.
“I think definitely, the side of Fro — like the pro-style type — was something that I was able to pick up and try to combine my abilities with my legs and try to make plays with my feet and try to use the game that he established and helped me learn into my game,” Comis said. “And I think that’s helped me a lot in the past three years and going into the season the No. 1 guy.”
As important as his arm and legs will be to the Minutemen’s success, so will his voice.
“I’m still learning,” he said. “Definitely, I’m still learning, but I feel like I’m in a great spot with this offense and we’ve got some playmakers. Now I’m going to just try to get them the ball.
“I think it’s my job and these guys trust me and these guys are ready for me to take them into this season and lead them.”
UMass football schedule
Sept. 3 at Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 10 vs. Boston College (Gillette Stadium), noon
Sept. 17 vs. Florida International (McGuirk Stadium, Amherst, Mass.), 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 24 vs. Mississippi State (Gillette Stadium), 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 1 vs. Tulane (McGuirk Stadium), 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 8 at Old Dominion, 6 p.m.
Oct. 15 vs. Louisiana Tech (Gillette Stadium), 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 22 at South Carolina, TBA
Oct. 29 vs. Wagner (McGuirk Stadium), 1 p.m.
Nov. 5 at Troy (Ala.), TBA
Nov. 19 at BYU, TBA
Nov. 26 at Hawaii, 11 p.m.