One of the best events of the year took place this past weekend in the New England Football Coaches Clinic.
Although it was not as well-attended as some of the past clinics, it was still busy in Foxboro with many engaging presentations and discussions taking place.
When we went over on Saturday for the second half (there were also festivities Friday night), we found UMass coach Walt Bell sitting in a corner, preparing his speech for later that morning. We decided to pull up a chair and talk, and Bell was kind enough to indulge us.
Here are some notes from that conversation, and others we had with both high school and college coaches Saturday.
— We got Bell's input on what he thought of the new statewide tournament that was passed on Friday.
He smiled and said of the complaining that goes on is universal. Bell said that in Georgia, you'll have a team north of Atlanta travel down to South Georgia for a game. That's quite the trip, and it's something the coaches, players, and parents down there have just gotten used to.
With the vote having gone through the night before, the format was a big topic of discussion among the high school coaches there. We spoke to a decent number. While the coaches did acknowledge that travel would be an issue, we did not get the sense that people were angry over this.
That's a key distinction.
The current playoff system, which kicked in in 2013, had a passionate group of dissenters that hated what was being implemented. Hated it, and were not afraid to voice that opinion. We get the feeling from talking to coaches that while this did not pass to an overwhelming degree, those that don't like the statewide playoff are in more of a "wait and see" type of attitude.
It does not hurt that one of the main points of contention lately will be solved when a school like Springfield Central is moved up to Division 1 and is no longer in Div. 3.
That said, you would be surprised to see how many coaches wish they were in the older system that had a long regular season with league winners making a shortened playoff.
Something to remember with all this. With Thanksgiving in the mix, you're always going to have a flawed playoff. That's just the fact of the matter. Massachusetts starts late in comparison to other states, and most others don't have games on Thanksgiving. Something is going to suffer under those circumstances, and there's not a ton you can do about it.
— Numbers are an issue with UMass, as Bell said he is likely going to have just eight scholarship seniors this fall. Overall, UMass will fall well short of the 85-man scholarship limit.
Still, Bell isn't panicking. He said this year's group is making progress. The team has gained a collective 600 pounds, and in general has a better sense of what Bell and his staff expect.
The Minutemen should be improved. Whether that makes a dent on the win-loss record at this point is yet to be determined. There is still a long way to go. You don't have that type of deficit from a numbers perspective and win a lot of college football games. It's just hard.
That said, Bell knows what he's in for, and loves the class he brought in.
— Speaking of that class, Bell is very excited about Natick's Josh Atwood and North Attleboro's Ethan Mottinger.
Atwood is someone Bell wants at nose tackle, and the more you talk to the UMass coach, the more you get the sense that Atwood was a major steal.
It is hard to find big men with the type of footwork Atwood has, and Bell feels strongly that he's got a keeper there. Let's face it, UMass has just been bad when it comes to stopping the run lately. But get more guys like Atwood on campus, and the Minutemen have a fighting chance of getting better in that respect. Bell seems well aware of that.
Mottinger is a good player, but Bell feels even more optimistic about what he can become. In other words, even though Mottinger is about 6-foot-5, 295 pounds, he can get a lot bigger and stronger under a Div. 1 college strength and conditioning program without losing his athleticism or agility.
UMass has to get better everywhere, but it will not get better unless it improves at the point of attack. Bell knows that, and it's one of the reasons he is so pumped to get Atwood and Mottinger in the fold.
— We are always interesting in all things recruiting, and we asked Bell about he and his staff going to high school games during the season.
Bell said he wants his coaches to get to as many high school games during the year as possible.
He said they usually drop in on players who are committed to them, but that it is a common occurrence to notice another player in that game as an offer candidate.
Bell also said that it's important to see live games so they can observe a player and his body language on the sideline. That's important. Coaches are not looking solely for highlight-reel plays on the field, but a player who is engaged and positive when he is not in the game.
— We were able to speak with several Div. 3 coaches. One said that Framingham State running back Devaun Ford is "a Div. 1 running back playing Div. 3." The Mashpee native had a terrific true freshman campaign in the fall, a surprise to no one who played or coached against him in high school.
They also said Western N.E., Endicott, and Curry all had outstanding recruiting classes.