With the UMass spring showcase over, we thought we would take stock in where Walt Bell and Co. stand heading into the summer.
The verdict so far is that although the fanbase will have to be patient, Bell is getting a lot of things right, and he has laid a nice foundation, especially for someone who is just months into the job.
Let's go over the main takeaways.
— The transparency and open nature Bell has had with the fans, coaches, and players has been a nice bonus. One hurdle UMass needs to overcome is pure visibility. You might not think it's a big deal, but in recruiting, if your program is a little too out of sight, out of mind, it can be a massive detriment. Whether it has been Bell's social media savvy, opening up practices to whomever is interested in watching, or any of the steps he has taken to raise the UMass profile, it has been largely successful. More people are talking about the Minutemen this spring than usual, and that is directly correlated to Bell's approach.
— Recruiting is already starting to tick up. Over 30 prospects were on hand to watch the Minutemen on Saturday, even on a miserable weather day. That's another step up from what you usually see, and the caliber of player on hand was also impressive. For instance, Don Bosco Prep (N.J.) running back Jalen Berger was in Amherst Saturday. Berger, according to 247Sports.com, is a four-star prospect with offers from the likes of Alabama, Penn State, Boston College, and Michigan. To even get a player like Berger on campus is a win, even if it's an extreme long shot to land his signature. But Bell's aggressiveness on the trail and willingness to compete for players like that is a terrific sign.
— Along those same lines, and we've hit on this a lot and will continue to, Bell applies that same attitude to local recruits. All four of his 2020 commits either play their high school ball or hail from Massachusetts. On Saturday, Bell said his coaches will be canvassing the state over the evaluation period. This week, UMass offered Everett class of 2021 defensive end Josaiah Stewart, another early, proactive move on someone whose recruitment is only going to pick up with time. It does not hurt that Stewart hails from a program that produces high-level talent every year. This is the kind of strategy many local coaches have been thirsting for from a program like UMass, and Bell is coming through.
— As far as on the field, Bell made some interesting comments Saturday, saying that he wanted the X's and O's installation to be "bare bones," for the emphasis to be on learning how to practice the way the staff wants, and establishing conditioning and tempo. One of the quarterbacks battling for a starting job, Michael Curtis, echoed how tempo is the offense's "bread and butter." In other words, Bell's messaging is getting across, and he has established an identity. Bell is taking his time to lay a foundation for the Minutemen, and that is important for any new coach.
— With the depth along the defensive line thin coming into the spring, Bell did the smart thing and managed reps the best he could. As it stands, there were no new injuries, which is huge, because the Minutemen really couldn't afford any there. Some new players will arrive in the fall, but the main issue right now is getting the current scholarship players ready for the season and in a position where they can help in the area that struggled mightily last season: defending the run. UMass desperately needs to hold up better at the point of attack this season, or it won't matter how good the offense is.
— Overall, it feels like this program has some momentum, doesn't it? It may be sort of an intangible thing, but Bell has infused some real energy, and it has begun to radiate beyond what one would have expected this early in his tenure. Maybe it's the fact that he has surrounded himself with such a young staff. Maybe it has something to do with how his offense is so up-tempo that it is filtering to the rest of the team. Maybe it is how competitive he has been in the recruiting aspect. Who knows? All we know for sure is that the positive vibes coming out of McGuirk the other day, even in ugly weather, were real. Now, maybe that changes when the season starts, and this team, which still has a long way to go to compete with a lot of teams on its schedule, takes a few early losses. But that should not take away from what Bell has done so far, which is hit the ground running in his first head coaching job with the organization and vision of someone who knows exactly what he's doing. For now, that will have to do.