AMHERST — With low numbers due to injuries and illness, combined with rainy conditions, the UMass spring game was not all that eventful.
Overall, there were about 45 minutes worth of play, with a few highlights mostly coming from the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Mike Ruane made a big stick on a swing pass, then fellow linebacker Chinedu Ogbonna made an interception shortly after. The spring ended when defensive lineman Elijah Miranda, a Dorchester native and BC High alum, made a sack that fired up that side of the ball.
However, there was not much else to be gleaned from the play with so many players out.
Afterward, coach Walt Bell, quarterback Michael Curtis, and Miranda spoke to the media about the day, the spring in general, and what lies ahead.
Here is what they said.
Q: You ever had a spring game with this much rain?
WB: No. That was probably, that was interesting, to say the least. It poured the whole time, but nobody cares. Nobody cares about your problems. Most are glad you have them. So we had to go out and learn to play in the rain. So it was good for us.
Q: Are you happy with where your team is at the end of spring practice?
WB: Yeah, especially getting out of today healthy. Obviously, we're missing a lot of bodies. We had seven (offensive linemen), one healthy tight end, and one kind of halfway healthy running back. We had wideouts playing tailback. We are a little bit pieced together offensively, but no long-term injuries. Everyone will be healthy heading into the summer. More than anything else, we had a bunch of kids (with the) flu. We got one with pneumonia. We've had a bunch of sickness. It will be nice to have everybody back full strength once we add all our new bodies in the fall and be able to go out and have good practices.
Q: Are you happy with what they did out there today in that short period of time?
WB: There's always good and bad. Anytime you're the head football coach, you're halfway rooting for the offense and halfway rooting for the defense. I thought the defense did a nice job today, flew around and chased the ball. Offensively, there were some really good things, and there were some really, I mean, honestly, some embarrassing turnovers there from the quarterbacks. We've all got getting better to do and improvement to do, but we'll get there.
Q: What was the best thing you saw out on the field today?
WB: Just from the time we had team meeting at 10 o'clock, to the time we hit the field, to warmups, to until the end of it, kids were engaged. They were fired up. Kind of took it for what it was, and that was their last opportunity to have a chance to go put their body on somebody and kind of prove to their teammates who they are on film. Excited they took advantage of the day.
Q: I know coming into the spring, depth along the defensive line was kind of an issue. How do you guys feel you have developed that over the spring?
WB: Yeah, well, we haven't added any new bodies yet. So the same six guys we went out there with are the same six guys we finished with, which that in and of itself is huge that we didn't lose bodies there. That at least structured practice in a way where we could have some good work. But I'm excited for all those kids. I thought they all got better all spring. We add three or four more bodies, it will be interesting to see how the competition in that room shakes out.
Q: What about your quarterback room? How's the competition there? Has anybody taken a lead, or is this going to be something we're going to have to . . .
WB: Yeah, it will be one of those deals where somebody will take the first snap against Rutgers. I don't think anybody in that room right now consistently has proven every day that they're the starter. The good news is we've got time. The first rule of decision making is to take all allotted time. We've got until 7 or 8 p.m. on the Big Ten Network on a Friday night to make it. So we've got a lot of time. We've just got to have someone step up and figure it out.
Q: Putting your offense and defense in, did (the players) get it quicker than you thought?
WB: We purposefully, mentally, we purposefully were really, really, really simple. Very bare bones, did not do a whole lot in terms of installation, because it was more about how and why we play the way we play, as opposed to X's and O's. Everybody can do X's and O's, but we're more just about standards of how we want to play. Mentally, our kids have been really good. We still have to improve the techniques of certain jobs, but we'll get there.
Q: What do you think was the biggest challenge this spring in terms of transitioning into the new head coaching position, and how did you think you handled the challenge?
WB: I think the biggest challenge this spring has just been between myself and (director of sports performance) coach (Matt) Shadeed and the staff, just making sure that we're having great practices and the type of practices we need to improve, but all the while knowing that we're down on bodies right now. A little bit shorter . . . Or, I won't say shorter. We're going to get in the same amount of time we get in. We're going to get a lot in in two hours. Just in terms of repetition, instead of 16, I'm used to 24. Instead of 24, I'm used to 32. We just tried to make sure we kept our kids as healthy as we could, as long as we could, just to make sure we could finish things the right way.
Q: On the topic of how you practice, do you think the kids are further along now, or as long as you could get them in terms of a conditioning and tempo standpoint?
WB: Yeah, absolutely. We're in much better shape. Then, on top of that, we've got great kids. They have bought into the way we practice, bought into the way we transition. Coach Shadeed and our staff has done a great job of making sure those guys know the hows and whys. So I'm proud that we have learned the practice the right way. Now, it will just be making sure from a recruiting standpoint, roster management, roster building, roster standpoint, that we can then start to graduate to the number of repetitions we're used to getting in the allotted amount of time.
Q: What's the rest of your spring look like now?
WB: Recruiting. (It's) the most important thing that we do, by far. So Tuesday, every single one of our coaches will be in the state of Massachusetts, and we will be working. Obviously, they don't let us go on the road anymore as head football coaches. But we will do recruiting. We will be recruiting as hard as we possibly can this eval period to make sure we position ourselves to bring in some great players.
Q: Have you started to get a lot of good response from coaches?
WB: You can't make everybody happy. That's one thing I have learned, and I'm sure there are some people that either may or may not agree with us. But the majority of the feedback that I've gotten as head football coach and our athletic director has gotten is people are really excited because we're doing everything we can. From D.C. to Boston, there's enough population density and enough great football players where we can build a football team of us, by us, and for us. So we're excited.
Q: Did you enjoy the weather?
Q: No, for the spring.
WB: I'm (inside) all the time. I get here 4:30 in the morning and don't leave until a little bit late. So I'm in here, and the weather's 72 degrees and fantastic in here. So as long as my wife's happy, I'm good. And she's fine, so I'm fine.
Q: We just talked to coach Walt Bell. He said, in his opinion no one has won the starting quarterback job. Do you have any thoughts on that?
MC: No, no thoughts on that. Just every day we're coming out here and competing. It's a brand new system, brand new culture. A lot of stuff that we're trying to get done: stuff that we haven't done before; stuff that we have done. As a quarterback, I'm sure any quarterback will tell you our job is to be a leader no matter who's the No. 1 guy or No. 4 guy. Every single day you're trying to go out and be the best and prove to your teammates and coaches that you should be the guy to lead your team.
Q: What do you think personally went well for you in the scrimmage you just had?
MC: The scrimmage today?
MC: I think we started off really strong. Even as the whole offense, I think we started off really strong when I was out there, when other guys were out there. As it kind of progressed, I think we did good up until the end where we had some issues moving the ball, had issues taking care of it, which are things we talked about all spring. I think, without a doubt, if you look at our first practice to now, the strides and improvements we've made are unbelievable and astounding. So if we can just bring that to the summer, and make sure we're working on the little things and understanding better what we want out of ourselves, and what we want our of the offense and executing to the best of our ability, come fall we can really improve very quickly, very rapidly, and be over-prepared for the season.
Q: Did the wetness affect it at all today?
MC: I think, without a doubt, any time you play in inclement weather, it's going to have an effect. But you can't let it in any way let it seep into your mentality of how you do stuff. You're probably not going to be throwing the ball downfield as much. But any time you go to throw, you're not going to be thinking about if the ball is wet, or what am I going to do here? It's grip it and rip it, as they say.
Q: You guys seemed to run a lot of long passes today. You had that one over the middle I think to Kyle Horn. I think Bell said that's going to be a big part of the offense next year. Are you looking for that, too?
MC: Without a doubt. No doubt. Even though today with the rain and everything, we still had downfield passes. That's a big part of our offense. It's taking advantage of whatever may be, taking advantage of whatever coverage is put in front of us. Definitely next year that will be a big part of our offense. We'll try to hit every part of the field as you've noticed. Well, I'm not sure if you have or haven't noticed, our wide receivers are a lot wider now. Every single inch of the field, we're trying to take advantage of. That's deep, short, wide, narrow.
Q: I know you also have to learn a lot of the intricacies of the offense, but how quickly did it take the quarterback room to get what coach Bell wanted?
MC: I think every day we're still learning and still processing it. As far as from an offensive standpoint and schematically, it's not necessarily what we came from as far as having a million different schemes and full-field progressions and things like that that we used to have. But as far as what we want out of the quarterback and understanding what is going on and putting us in the best positions possible, it's a little different. That part takes a lot longer. Understanding what it is, like I said, schematically and route-wise and things like that, and protection-wise, isn't necessarily as complex. It's more as how can we put ourselves in the best position every single play to get the most yards possible, and take advantage of whatever down and distance or coverage or matchup that we can.
Q: Is this now the longest part of your year, waiting for summer practices to start?
MC: It is. But I think no one really takes any time off. We're Division I football players. It's a 365, 24/7 job. So it's not, now we go on break for the next two weeks or three weeks before summer. We'll still be hitting the weight room. We'll still be out there throwing. We'll still be getting better every single day in the summer. That's a big time for development. I think that's what sets a lot of teams apart, especially improvement-wise, what we're doing this summer. Everyone says, everyone's getting up at 6 a.m. Everyone's lifting weights. Everyone's running to get faster. Everyone's going to be throwing once or twice a week. But it's who's throwing every single day, or six times a week, five times a week? Who's the one getting in the extra work? Who's doing the extra camaraderie and team-building exercises with their brothers? That's where it really sets apart, when you find out you know for a fact that you do have that culture and that brotherhood in that locker room to make very, very large strides in the summer.
Q: Walt talks a lot about tempo and stuff like that. What have you noticed from this offense in that respect?
MC: Very up-tempo. That is the whole motto. That is the name of the game for our offense. We have a lot of beautiful things that we do offensively and package-wise and schematically. But as far as tempo, that's our bread and butter. So we're trying to do whatever we can to be as fast as we can and well-conditioned as we can to take advantage of the defense as many times as possible during the game.
Q: Last time we talked, I asked you about the glove. If it rains . . .
MC: Yeah, no glove in the rain. . . . I wear the glove because I believe it gives me the advantage as far as controlling, grip-wise, in normal weather conditions. But when you're in the rain, you notice receivers shouldn't be wearing gloves either, because it will slip off your hands so quick. Unless I wanted to drop back and have the ball go behind my head every time I wanted to throw, it's probably not a good idea to wear the glove.
Q: Coming into this spring, there weren't a lot of bodies on the defensive line, but how do you feel the whole unit progressed?
EM: Everybody did, we just worked hard. We minimized everything to technique and effort. We basically just played for each other. (Defensive line) coach (Cedric) Douglas is doing great with us. We learn new things every day, and I look forward to continue to be coached by him.
Q: Did you like to sort of hit the walk-off to get the sack to end the practice and the spring?
EM: Definitely, definitely. We had a little pass game going on, and that sack, I was happy to get that, yeah.
Q: We talked about the offense playing quickly. Is the defense playing quickly, too?
EM: Yes. Every time they come up and fast line up, we match their energy and are right there with them, too. So, yeah, definitely.
Q: What do you think went well for you personally today?
EM: Today, it was just staying locked in. Everybody communicating, getting the call, getting set, the small things.
Q: What are the biggest differences between the practices you had with Walt and the old ones?
EM: The speed, definitely. It's fast tempo. You've got to get ready. You've got to get set, or you're not going to do well against this offense.
Q: I know there's the weight room and you'll be working out all summer, but is this the longest part of the year now, waiting for summer practice to start and getting ready to play football?
EM: Oh yeah, summer you definitely have to work hard and continue growing as a team. So, yeah, it's definitely a good part, but we're going to enjoy it, and we're going to work hard this summer.
Q: What are you most proud of working on this spring on the field?
EM: This spring, just being coachable and just understanding what my teachers are trying to coach me, and growing, and taking it and applying it to the field.
Q: How much did the defense improve from the first practice until today?
EM: The improvement is light years. We're just taking coaching, not taking anything personal, and just working hard, and playing for everyone.