This fall, the UMass football team is looking to establish a new standard.
Under first-year head coach Walt Bell, the Minutemen will strive to create a new culture following seven straight losing seasons since rejoining the FBS ranks. But that 18-66 record since 2012 is in the past, Bell and his staff have emphasized, as they focus on bettering the program on and off the field.
“More than anything, we’re creating a sustainable winning culture,” Bell said. “Understanding how to play the game we want, that has to precede winning, and we’re excited to try to develop that here.”
Although Bell is a rookie head coach, he has experience as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, most recently at Florida State. His approach: to do everything as simply as possible for the team.
“The foundation of culture is clarity,” said Bell, “and to ensure what the standard is. Second is great communication, and the hardest part is consistency between academics, athletics, and social life.
“By putting a system in place with a clear set of standards, we can hold our kids accountable.”
Of course, the biggest question mark is replacing the offensive production of wide receiver Andy Isabella. After leading the country with 141.5 receiving yards per game as a senior last season, Isabella was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the NFL Draft.
Isabella accounted for nearly 50 percent of the Minutemen’s yardage through the air last season. Bell acknowledged it will not be a one-man job to replace him.
“He was a second-round pick for a reason,” said Bell. “It’s going to be by committee. We have a lot of really good players, and no one has really separated themself so far.”
One option could be senior Sadiq Palmer, who was second on the team last season with 419 receiving yards.
Redshirt sophomore Melvin Hill and redshirt senior Kyle Horn could be poised for bigger roles. Along with their on-field improvement, they have been paramount in helping Bell and the team adjust to the coaching change.
“Those kids have been with us making sure the standard is clearly communicated,” Bell said.
UMass already has seen off-field improvement, from the weight room to the classroom.
“Our kids have been unbelievable,” Bell said. “They’ve set a team record for GPA, they’re socially responsible, and their buy-in has been really exceptional.”
With both top quarterbacks gone from last season — Ross Comis and Andrew Ford — senior Randall West has been named the starter. West has flipped between football and basketball and appeared in four games at quarterback in 2016 and ’17.
Defense was where UMass struggled most last season. It ranked 126th out of 129 teams in FBS, allowing 42.9 points per game. It also was near the bottom in yards allowed per game (484.8) and opposing third-down conversion (41.9 percent).
Along with emphasizing recruiting to strengthen and deepen the defense, Bell is working on the unit he has to reverse the struggles of a year ago.
“We have to put kids into the position to be successful,” Bell said. “We have to develop the talent we have and put in sound schemes on defense. We’re on the right track.”
UMass will face an uphill task in Bell’s first season with road games at Big Ten schools Rutgers (Aug. 30) and Northwestern (Nov. 16). Road trips to Louisiana Tech (Oct. 12) and Army (Nov. 9) also highlight the schedule.
Of the six home games at McGuirk Stadium, five are against FBS schools. The Minutemen open their home slate against Southern Illinois Sept. 7. Home contests against UConn (Oct. 26) and BYU (Nov. 23) are highly anticipated.
But for Bell and the Minutemen, the opponent doesn’t matter. The new standard for UMass is all about being better than the week before.
“The reason coaches tell you ‘one game at a time’ is because it’s true,” Bell said. “I couldn’t care less who are opponent is; I just want to be our best.
“Continuous improvement and being better today than we were yesterday is what it takes to win.”
Aug. 30, at Rutgers, 7:15 p.m.
Sept. 7, Southern Illinois, 3:30 p.m.
Sept. 14, at Charlotte, 6 p.m.
Sept. 21, Coastal Carolina, 1 p.m.
Sept. 28, Akron, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 5, at FIU, 7 p.m.
Oct. 12, at Louisiana Tech, 7 p.m.
Oct. 26, UConn, 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 2, Liberty, noon
Nov. 9, at Army, noon
Nov. 16, at Northwestern, TBA
Nov. 23, BYU, noon