AMHERST — On the third floor of the Mullins Center Wednesday, UMass conducted its National Signing Day Show for both a live and televised audience, complete with multiple screens running highlights of the newly-inked Minutemen.
There were interviews with athletic director Ryan Bamford, every member of Walt Bell's staff of assistants, and, of course, multiple with the new UMass coach himself.
When the show was over, Bell walked to sit at a table with three reporters. The first question was whether or not the conclusion of National Signing Day would allow Bell to exhale at all from the rush of activity that he's experienced since being hired in December.
"For a few hours, then you're worried about the next evolution," Bell said matter-of-factly. "Then you're worried about the strength and conditioning piece, getting into spring football. So, we will give the staff a few days off so they can go home, actually unpack their suitcase, wash clothes, have time to find a place to live. Give those guys some time to do what they can with their families. We'll get back here and we'll dive back into our kids, and the other half of the day, we spend a lot of time on football, so we're prepared to start teaching those guys about a week and a half from now. A lot of work to do."
But a lot of work has already been completed with a 20-player 2019 class that is technically not finished. Bell said he is leaving three spots open to hopefully fill some holes either in the trenches or on defense. He mentioned that the program has just two healthy scholarship defensive tackles for spring practice.
Speaking of which, Bell dropped this nugget about spring ball: "We don't start until March 19th, and then we'll be done April 20th. Practice Tuesday, Thursday, Saturdays. Everything's open to the public. Come watch us. Come hang out."
That casual invitation was one of the biggest actual news items of the day, but we wanted to get his and his staff's thoughts on the four players from the Bay State who will be suiting up for the Minutemen this fall.
That group includes three players from Everett High in running back Kevin Brown, offensive lineman Helber Fagundes, and defensive lineman Wilson Frederic to go along with Mashpee High defensive end/outside linebacker Xavier Gonsalves.
Frederic verbally committed to Sacred Heart before switching his pledge to UMass late in the process. For Bell, it harkened back to the coach's first in-state trek.
"The biggest thing for me was, the day I got hired, not the day I got hired, but the first day I went on the road, I went to Everett," Bell said. "Spent a lot of time with (Everett) coach (Theluxon) Pierre. That's his step son. (Frederic) came into the office, stood up. (He's a) big, tall kid. Really didn't get a great look at his frame. (Frederic was wearing a) big, heavy winter coat on, the whole deal.
"Obviously, his tape was unbelievable. I wasn't really sure how big he was. I sent our (defensive line) coach (Cedric Douglas) there to see him a second time. Got to watch (Frederic) work out. He's a 530-pound squatter. (Douglas) got to see his body for what it really was. When (Frederic) came on his visit, he was right at, I think he was 6021, so a shade over 6-2. He was 279 pounds, but with a frame and an upper body that's really going to make him 300-pound guy that's really athletic, really sudden, twitchy. So I'm just excited about what he's going to become."
Said Douglas: "He is one of the twitchiest D-linemen I've seen in the state as far as . . . At his size, he's 6-2. He's going to easily be around 290 when it's all said and done, 295. And his strength and speed are just something special."
As for Brown, the 6-foot, 225-pounder fits nicely for what Bell is looking for in his one-back, spread offense.
"Because all those overhangs, all those people that have to play in that type of space, it's hard to arm-tackle a 240-pound guy," Bell said. "So, for me, everybody thinks of these systems (as having running backs that are) scat backs, little guys. We want a big, physical, durable, downhill guy. That's typically when we've been our best."
"He is a big kid," running backs coach Fredi Knighten said. "Like, he is a guy that you do not want to tackle. So I think he is going to bring a big piece of the physicality part to our run game that we are going to need. There's going to be a lot of space. There's going to be a lot of arm-tackling that people are going to have to do to try and tackle him. He's going to run through those because he's a big, powerful kid. He'll be able to help us out on special teams. I know (special teams) coach (Luke) Paschall will be anxious to get his hands on him. . . . He's a guy that once he gets out into the open field, good luck. That's what we want. We want guys to be able to break explosive plays."
Fagundes signed with the Minutemen last cycle, but is now officially part of the 2019 class. Bell explained it the best he could.
"Here's what I know. I know he was brought here as a greyshirt. So they were going to have him here not full time for, I guess, a year or whatever," Bell said. "So he was a kid that was kind of here for a while. He went back home for something that I'm really not allowed to talk about. No character (issue), no discipline (issue), no nothing. I just think it was a bit of error in execution. So (he) went home. Obviously, we want him back. He's a great football player. He's a people-mover. Great kid. Great mom. So we're happy to have him back. It would be hard to find much better. So, kudos to the last staff for getting him here in the first place."
Naturally, with three players from the same program in the same class, we asked about the overlap in watching their film.
"Hard to watch the highlight tape of one without seeing the other. Sometimes that's good and bad," Bell said. "Not hard to put together a highlight. When you play 600 plays, you'll find 10, 12 good ones. So, a lot of times, when you're in a situation like that, you'll purposefully watch the other kid's highlight just to watch him, to kind of find the warts, if you can."
Back to Fagundes' playing style, Bell and co-offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Jim Jackson had similar comments.
"But, no, big, physical kid. Likes contact. Craves contact," Bell said. "Likes to play nasty. He's a big man that doesn't just play football because he's big. He loves football. So, excited about him and his development."
Said Jackson: "He's a great kid. He's from Brazil, originally. He moved when he was about seven or eight years old. He's from Everett, Mass. So he's a state champion. He knows how to win. He's a tough, physical O-lineman. He's probably about 6-5, 320 pounds. Really physical. Really working his butt off in the weight room right now. He has some things to improve, some pass techniques and stuff like that. But we're fired up about this kid. He is a road-grader, a run blocker. He's fun to coach. He's what we're about on the UMass O-line."
Gonsalves committed to the Minutemen under former coach Mark Whipple, but Bell and Co. were able to retain him despite the Mashpee star not making it official during the early signing period.
"For me, I just think when you see him, and when you see his growth potential, plus they showed six, seven clips of him today rushing the passer . . . But you watch him play offense, he plays tight end, he's hurdling guys, running around people, and over people," Bell said. "He's just a great, big athlete. (He's) 6027, 257, and he's size 17 shoes, big hands, big wrists, big parts. He may end up being a 300-pound guy that's a great athlete, that's athletic enough, that can play defensive end and rush the passer, but also do your situational stuff, slide inside, go beat a guard. I mean, I feel really good about his long-term potential. And I think he has not scratched the surface of where he is going to be as a player."
And, character-wise, Bell loves what he's getting, too.
"When I walked into (Mashpee High) for the first time, the lady that ran the intercom system, to the principal, to the lunch lady, to the strength coach, to the football coach . . . There wasn't anyone in that building that didn't rave about what type of kid (Gonsalves) was," Bell added. "That helps you. Just because somebody has great potential doesn't mean they're going to reach it. But when they've got those type of character traits, that nine times out of 10 tells you they'll do whatever it takes to get there."
Co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tommy Restivo was just as bullish on Gonsalves.
"A guy that has some size. When he came on his visit, it was the first time I saw him. He was 6-3, 255. He's going to be a defensive end for us. He's very explosive off the edge. He can rush the passer. One thing that's great about this kid is he has relentless effort when he plays. Very excited on what he can do off the edge. . . . Very physical football player for us. He's a great addition for us."
Some other notes to pass on:
— Bell went into more detail about what his offense would look like, and how it's constructed. As we mentioned Monday, we figured we'd get some more insight on that today.
"Really small. No. Small. Very small," Bell said of the playbook. "It'll look like a lot, but it ain't a lot. There is no substitution for repetition in anything you do in life. The only way to do that is to do very little a lot of times. For me, that's the skill. From (legendary "Air Raid" offense) coach (Hal) Mumme to (current Washington State) coach (Mike) Leach to (current University of Oklahoma coach) Lincoln (Riley) to . . . I mean, we've got eight, nine pass plays. (We're) just really good at them. When I say we, I really, honestly, mean them. But that's kind of our system. The system is really simple to allow those guys to chase space, and play free, and manage that gray that comes up."
That helps speed things up in a number of ways, according to Bell.
"Absolutely, absolutely, and not just from a tempo standpoint. Not the actual, physical act of getting the ball snapped faster, but it just allows you to play much more confidently" Bell said. "When I can run something six times throughout a week, how am I going to execute it? Or, I've been repping it hundreds of times since I've been here. And then it's our job to make sure that the systems and the plays that we put in place are very multiple, and you've got answers for whatever (the defenses) play, to make sure that when there is gray area and adjustments have to be made, they've been there, they've done that, they've seen it. It's natural.
"For me, that's what made coach Mumme so special. Literally, it was 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98. And there's eight pass plays. But that's what ultimately made him so good. They got so good at it. They learn how to manage grass. They learn how to beat man. They learn how to play in zone. They learn how to go chase that space. Then, the quarterback, it's the same thing. It's the decision-making process. Instead of, 'What did he want me to do this week on four verticals?' It's just, 'boom.' It's just part of their DNA, and who they are. So, any senior he trotted out there for . . . Coach Leach I think trotted out a senior out there for five or six different years and all of them would throw for five grand. It's just because they're sort of raised in the system. It's second nature."
— Over his time canvassing the state, Bell learned as much as he could about Massachusetts high school football.
"I think, for me, it's not necessarily what type of kid we want," he said. "It's spending the time equity with high school coaches to really understand, who are the programs who are always going to have players? Who's well coached? Where are the places, and where are the players that may not be recruited enough?
"For example, in Mississippi, there are 10-12 kids everybody knows about, and then there's 40 more kids that end up becoming (Football Bowl Subdivision) football players. Whether they're from the junior college system, they're just . . . You've just got to know. To me, that's the ultimate first-year thing. You've got to go out, you've got to fact find. You've got to build relationships. You've got to know who the trainers are. You've got to know who the high school coaches are. You've got to know who the people you can trust are, and build good relationships with, because those, ultimately, those are the people are the reasons we are going to get (the players). I don't have a great sales background. I'm not a million-dollar life insurance guy. That doesn't come naturally to me. So you've got to rely on the relationships that you build with others."
He was then asked what his impression is of Massachusetts high school football.
"For me, I think the first thing is there's a great pool of late-developers," Bell said. "Part of the reason I think that is is just because, number one, not spring football, so their football development happens a little bit later. So through senior tape, you're going to be able to find a bunch of really good players, whether it be the 260-pound, 6-5 kid that is going to grow into the 300-pounder that you want that's going to be a long, good foot athlete. I think (the football in Massachusetts) is really well-coached. I think that's the biggest thing. Especially, a lot of my first trips, there are some really well-run programs. You're going to get tough, blue-collar, well-versed football players when you get them from here. So that's a tribute to the coaching. But football is football. I think as long as you treat people the right way, you're authentic to yourself, and you're honest with people, they'll respond in kind."
— We were not able to get many details on how many preferred walk-ons Bell expects in this class. Cheshire Academy linebacker and Malden native Jared Martino and Xaverian Brothers lineman Grant Laws are two locals we know of.
But even though Bell was not allowed to specifically mention anyone per NCAA rules, he spoke about what the PWO program can offer, especially if one can eventually earn a scholarship.
"For me, that's why you do this, to help young people," Bell said. "Any time you can help better somebody's life, especially, you look at the student debt crisis in this country right now. Just the fact that you get to relieve some of that off a family or off a kid. Just the financial piece alone, let alone how proud it makes them to know that everything they've worked for, they finally get a tangible reward for that. That's why we do what we do."
— Finally, UMass signed two quarterbacks: Andrew Brito, from Paramus Catholic in New Jersey, and Garrett Dzuro, out of Lakewood, Ohio's St. Edward. Brito is 5-10, and Dzuro is 5-11.
Asked about the height of his two signees, Bell said it was a non-factor.
"I'm of the belief that I don't care how tall that you are. If you can play football, you can play football," he said. "If you're 6-5 and you can't play, you can't play. For me, I get it. There's a point of diminishing return. There always has been. But, at the end of the day, if you can help us win football games and you've got winnable tools in your toolbox, then you can play for us.
"Whether it was (the 5-11) Tyrrell Pigrome at Maryland, who scored 50-some-odd points at Texas, whether it was (the 5-11) Fredi (Knighten), who was a great player at Arkansas State, probably the most feared offensive player in that league for two years, we've had great experiences with players of all shapes and sizes. I'm just excited to get those two kids (Brito and Dzuro) here and go let 'em spin a little bit."