We took in the last two UMass spring practices, and were able to observe what the Minutemen are working with right now, and how the new coaching staff is managing it. Here are a few things we've learned:
— Coach Walt Bell isn't just paying lip service to words like "tempo" and "pace." He and his entire staff are running — more like sprinting — the players from drill to drill, and the stations themselves move a step faster. We spoke to some of the high school coaches who have also seen the Minutemen work this spring, and they seem to agree that the speed to which Bell and Co. are operating is getting off to a strong start. As Bell told us on Thursday, the overall tempo and conditioning of the team is not where he wants it to be yet, but the Minutemen are moving forward in the right direction there.
— The open-door, transparent nature of Bell's regime so far also seems to be a hit with local coaches and players. You're not necessarily seeing a huge crowd on the sidelines, but the people who show up seem to appreciate being welcomed into the process and feel a part of what Bell is building. After every practice, Bell takes the time to meet with those who came to watch before speaking to the media, and there is a genuine aspect to his personality that seems to be hitting home with those in attendance.
— That bleeds onto the next point a little, but Bell likes to say that "recruiting is about building relationships," and that is not just a cliche with him, either. Watching him interact with local coaches, recruits and parents, you can see how much work he puts in to take the time to listen, engage, and offer the type of attention needed to convince recruits to come to Amherst. In other words, you can see why Bell has built a reputation as an ace recruiter.
— Along those recruiting lines, we communicated online with someone who is very close to the DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) program that sent two Class of 2019 players to UMass. Here is what he had to say:
"UMass will be getting two steals from DeMatha next season. WR Jermaine Johnson is a great slot guy and returner. A little undersized, but lightning quick. DB Josh Wallace didn’t play football until his senior year since he was focused on basketball. Athletically, he can play on Sundays. The new DC up there, Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, should have Wallace playing early and often."
— As for the players already on campus, the quarterback group is still in a healthy competition. The most experienced players on the roster are Randall West and Michael Curtis. The player who may push those two the most is Josiah Johnson. At 6-5, 210 pounds, he has prototypical height, a very live arm, and throws with nice anticipation. It will be interesting to see how this race for the starting job shakes out, but the competition is a healthy one.
— Right now, maybe the positional unit that is in the best shape from a talent and depth standpoint is linebacker. Penn State transfer Jarvis Miller should help right away, and players like Chinedu Ogbonna, Claudin Cherrelus, Mike Ruane, Cole McCubrey, Tyris Lebeau, and others give this unit some versatility and promise. With a defensive line that is young and short on bodies at the moment, a solid group of linebackers to bolster the front seven is a must, and UMass seems to have that.
— It's a little soon to make bold predictions one way or another this early, but we feel fairly confident in this team's ability to score points right away. Not to go back to that word again, but the tempo UMass will being to the table will wear a lot of defenses out. On Thursday, offensive lineman Ray Thomas-Ishman said he can already see that in some of the battles against the defense so far.
— All of that said, the critical element to this team winning games this season is stopping the run, which the Minutemen couldn't do last season. Stopping the run is a little like rebounding in basketball: if you are good at everything else but can't do that, your margin for error becomes smaller and smaller in order to win games. With the current roster makeup, UMass fans may have to be patient in that regard, but it's not too much to expect some improvement, because there is plenty of room for it.