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UMASS FOOTBALL PREVIEW

UMass looks to build off its best season yet in FBS

Mark Whipple believes his team gained a lot of confidence last season.
Mark Whipple believes his team gained a lot of confidence last season.(Michael Dwyer/AP)

At face value, finishing with a 4-8 record might seem like another dismal season for the UMass football program. In actuality, the Minutemen may have finally laid a foundation with their most successful season at the Football Bowl Subdvision level to date.

Their four wins were their most since 2011, the Minutemen’s last season in the Football Championship Subdivision. After an 0-6 start to 2017, the Minutemen turned their season around, going 4-2 down the stretch. Even in defeat against Power Five conference opponents, UMass held tight, losing by a combined 15 points in games at Tennessee (17-13) and at Mississippi State (34-23).

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Since making the leap to FBS in 2012, life has been a struggle, but the Minutemen took some positives from last season, mainly on the offensive side of the ball.

UMass averaged 30.6 points per game, twice scoring as many as 50 in a 58-50 setback vs. Ohio last Sept. 30 and a 55-20 victory over Georgia Southern Oct. 14.

All the offensive leaders from last year are back, including quarterbacks Ross Comis and Andrew Ford. The latter saw most of the action under center, passing for nearly 3,000 yards with a 63.2 percent completion rate.

Coach Mark Whipple plans to utilize the tandem QBs again this season, with the duo more accustomed to operating a two-pronged offense.

“Last year was more about how we were going to go about things,” said Whipple. “Our roster got some experience. This year, we’ve got a plan. Both will play.”

Other key returners on offense include leading rusher Marquis Young (5.4 yards per carry) and top receiver Andy Isabella (1,020 receiving yards, 10 touchdown receptions), who is on the Paul Hornung Award watch list.

“Our young receivers came through last season,” said Whipple. “A lot of young guys have been better. We’re faster this year than we have been in the past.”

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A big area of offseason improvement was defense. UMass finished the 2017 season ranked 75th in the nation in total defense. Over 12 games, it allowed 47 touchdowns as opponents averaged 404.9 yards per game (5.76 yards per play).

UMass also tied for 94th in scoring defense with Cincinnati and New Mexico, allowing an average of 31.8 points per game. That number diminished slightly during the strong second half, but a 63-45 drubbing at Florida International signaled that changes needed to be made.

“The biggest difference was our takeaways and consistency for the entire football team,” said Whipple. “We showed a lot more confidence toward the end being able to make adjustments on the fly.”

The Minutemen added some highly-touted recruits on defense, including lineman Uchenna Ezewike, cornerback Elijah Johnson, and linebacker Darren Kyeremeh. While it’s still unclear in what capacity the freshmen will be used, Whipple is more concerned with the impact of his returning defensive players.

Experienced leaders such as senior safeties Brice McAllister and Tyler Hayes along with sophomore linebacker Bryton Barr and senior linebacker Cole McCubrey have had terrific camps.

“A lot of those guys on both sides of the ball are hard workers,” said Whipple. “They set an example in the weight room and throughout spring practices just in the way they approach the game.”

UMass has been working hard ahead of its opening game against Duquesne Saturday, which will be followed by a road test at Boston College Sept. 1. Games against South Florida and BYU at home along with Ohio and Georgia on the road will provide a challenge for the Minutemen.

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“I’m hoping the experience from the Florida game [in 2016] and the Tennessee game [last season] game will help us,” said Whipple. “We can’t worry about our future opponents now. We’ve just got to get off to a good start.”

Whipple’s bunch remains determined to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time since joining the FBS ranks.

“It’s a fair goal, definitely on their minds,” said Whipple. “If you get to a bowl, it’s a successful season, and we’ve been competitive.”

“Their toughness and spirit working together will lead to good things.”


Dan Shulman can be reached at dan.shulman@globe.com.