Dec. 24 MVP: MassVarsity Pre-and-Post

We wrote just a few days ago about new UMass coach Walt Bell's aggressive strategy with young, in-state talent.

After a few more offers were doled out to Class of 2020 players from Massachusetts, we felt compelled to revisit the subject.

Since the publishing of that last piece, Bell offered three more juniors from the Commonwealth: North Attleboro offensive lineman Ethan Mottinger, Dexter offensive lineman Jack Mills, and Dexter athlete Stephen Brooks.

For those keeping score at home, that makes a cool dozen juniors from the Bay State who hold scholarship offers from UMass.

You read that right, twelve. As juniors. Eight of those players have yet to field one from Boston College, and it marked the first FBS offer for six of them.

We reached out to one longtime area coach about this Saturday night and asked when the last time any school offered that many juniors from Massachusetts.

His response?

"Probably never."

Of the early offers reported by the UMass 247 site, the overwhelming majority of them have been communicated to players from New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The other states represented are your usual suspects of Ohio, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, places every program in the country hits.

There's no doubt that ratio will even out over time, but what this first tells you is that, on the day he was introduced as coach, Walt Bell wasn't messing around when he said this:

"I think for me, having been the guy that ran recruiting at North Carolina, just different places, I think when you set your footprint, it's got to be based around two things," Bell said. "It's number one, where are the areas that people are in terms of just population density? And then, number two, how many of those are within a six-to-eight-hour drive of campus? Because the number one name of the game in winning in recruiting is getting them on campus. And not just getting them here once, but getting them here two and three times. And so, a 10-12-hour car ride, that's hard to do. But, you know, four, six, eight hours, that can be done.

"So I think when you start setting what you consider your footprint is really based on a car drive, and how can we get them here repeatedly. And then, past that, where are direct flights to those same population centers that we talked about, because one hour at the airport, a two-hour flight and a one-hour drive, that's still four hours in terms of commute time. But I think it's just making sure your feasibility in terms of getting them on and off campus, and then just making sure that you're going places where there's enough bodies to validate the time that you're spending."

Right now, you're looking at car rides that are under three hours for some of these players. Bell is putting his money where his mouth is.

Second, one can interpret this as half-method, half-message. That message, it appears, is that Bell not only wants his players to represent Massachusetts on the front of their jerseys, but on the back of them, as well.

As a state school that loves to tout its #Flagship status, appealing to state pride makes sense. This is something that will no doubt resonate with area coaches and players.

Will it immediately translate into getting players who also hold offers from the likes of Boston College, Michigan, and Penn State? Probably not. There is still too much of a gap there to expect those types of results right away.

However, UMass has also lost recent recruiting battles to Coastal Carolina, Ivy League schools, and even bigger-name teams that present only preferred walk-on opportunities.

Those are players UMass should be able to sign, and this strategy is one of the best ways to do that.

The next logical question is whether or not UMass can win at the Football Bowl Subdivision level with this approach.

If you want to look back at the 1998 Division I-AA national title team (this was before the level was renamed as the Football Championship Subdivision), that answer is yes. That team featured roughly eight starters from Massachusetts, including the lion's share of the defensive front seven. All-American linebacker Khari Samuels was a native of Framingham.

(To take that theme even further, the Walter Payton Award winner that year was running back Jerry Azumah of the University of New Hampshire, who played his high school ball at Worcester's St. Peter-Marian.)

All told, there were almost 30 scholarship players from the Bay State on that UMass team.

Fast-forward 20 years, and obviously the competition isn't the same. The major conference opponents on the schedule in recent years of course present a whole different set of problems than the old Atlantic-10 Conference foes did.

That said, sure, UMass is in the FBS now, and they pepper the schedule with big-time programs, but don't have to compete with them for conference titles. That's an important distinction.

And when you look at this past season's schedule and the one for 2019, you see a lot of teams that UMass can compete with under the recruiting philosophy Bell has begun to implement. Teams like Charlotte, Liberty, Coastal Carolina, Southern Illinois, Duquesne, and, yes, Georgia Southern, are all beatable. UMass even topped UConn this past season, and the opener against Rutgers next fall isn't a sure loss, either.

The main takeaway, though, is that Bell has come to Massachusetts and said to the players and coaches here that he is not going the "slow play" local talent. He's doing the opposite, and as that area coach pointed out, Bell is doing so at an unprecedented rate.

Will it pay off? We won't know the answer to that for a while, and it also depends on how you define those expectations. But, at the very least, we know Bell believes it can.

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