Head Coach: Mark Whipple (Second Year)
MAC PRESEASON POLL: Fourth, MAC East
► After struggling during mightily during most of its time in the Mid-American Conference, can UMass leave the MAC in a blaze of glory?
► Can quarterback Blake Frohnapfel stay healthy and back up his 2014 season with another outstanding campaign?
► Can UMass find a solution for its troublesome kicking game?
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► Can WR Tajae Sharpe and LB Jovan Santo-Knox again excel for their respective units?
► Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel turned a dormant UMass passing game into the MAC’s best. The Minutemen easily topped the conference with 311.8 ypg. Frohnapfel, who was injured late in the campaign, missed two games with a broken leg. Nonetheless, he totaled 3,345 yards, 24 TDs and 10 interceptions. The First Team All MAC selection ranked fourth in the nation in passing yards (334.5 ypg).
► Last year’s record may not reflect it, but new head coach Mark Whipple and is staff made an immediate impact – particularly on offense. The Minutemen saw the potential of Frohnapfel with what they already had and put the offense in a position to succeed. Despite Frohnapfel’s late season absence, UMass (30.6 ppg) finished tied for fourth in MAC-only scoring. Buffalo (31.6 ppg) was the only MAC East team ahead of UMass. Opposing secondaries knew it would be a long day when Frohnapfel was at the UMass helm.
► Wide receiver Tajae Sharpe led the MAC in receptions (7.1 rpg) and was second in average receiving yards (106.8 ypg) With Frohnapfel at the helm, this figures to be one of the MAC’s (and possibly nation’s) most productive passing duos. A couple of seniors, Marken Michel and Jalen Williams, should also get plenty of touches in the pass-happy UMass offense.
► Tight end Jean Sifrin, a key contributor, is gone. However, it would appear UMass has an app for that. Senior Rodney Mills can move from H-back into the tight end spot.
► Junior Shadrach Abrokwah, a former walk-on, likely has the edge at running back. Health and consistency, however, has left this position unsettled in the past. Abrokwah averaged 4.7 ypc while picking up 578 yards with seven touchdowns in 2014.
► UMass’ offensive front returns pretty much intact. Although the Minutemen allowed 28 sacks (9th MAC), obviously they protected well enough in passing situation to get massive production with Frohnapfel at QB. Opening more running lanes would be a big help if UMass is going to challenge for a MAC East title.
► The Minutemen defense spent plenty of time on the field as UMass finished 11th in time of possession (27:15). That might be expected from a pass-dominated offense and rushing offense that averaged 3.3 ypc (11th).
► UMass ranked 11th in total defense (447.5 ypg), ninth in rushing defense (191.8 ypg) and ninth in pass defense (255.8 ypg).
► Nine starters return from the 2014 defense. Among them is Santos-Knox. His 11.9 tackles per contest was second among all MAC defenders. Stanley Andre departed, but the linebacking corps gets back Shane Huber. He missed 2014 with a knee injury.
► Minutemen defenders registered 15 sacks last year. That was 11th among MAC teams. Improvements in this area might help in some other defensive statistics, as well.
► Cornerback Randall Jett returns after earning All MAC Second Team honors in 2014. He was fifth on the team in tackles (67) and led the squad with 18 passes defended, 14 pass breakups and four interceptions. Among the new faces is UAB transfer Kelton Brackett. He played in nine games with limited production after starting seven games and playing in 11 for the Blazers as a sophomore in 2013.
► Robert Kitching (6-2, 310, Sr) gives the defensive front some much-needed size. He had 43 stops and 5.5 TFL with two pass breakups and a pair of blocked kicks in 2014, when he started three games and played in all 12 contests.
► Placekicking was a major sore spot for the Minutemen in 2014. Three kickers went 6 for 11 on field goals, with 34 yards being the longest successful boot. UMass converted 38 of 44 (86%) on PAT kicks. Freshman Michael Caggianno, an All New Jersey Second Team member with national attention, might prove to be a valuable boost. Sophomore Logan Laurent, meanwhile, could be pulling punting duties this time around.
Kickoff and punt returns were a strength for UMass. Khary Bailey-Smith (24.5 ypkr, 1 TD) and Trey Dudley Giles both return. UMass ranked third in kickoff returns.
► The Minutemen ranked 12th MAC and 103rd nationally in turnover margin last year. They gained 17 opponent turnovers while surrendering the ball 23 times (10 fumbles, 13 interceptions).
► UMass gets a late start, opening the 2015 season on Sept. 12 at Colorado. The Buffalos edged UMass 41.-38 last year. After a home tilt against Temple, the Minutemen finish September at Notre Dame.
UMass opens MAC play with a crucial game at Bowling Green Oct. 10. Toledo, Ball State and Eastern Michigan provide competition from the MAC West.
► UMass has extra incentive to excel in its final MAC season. It’s still unknown just what conference the Minutemen will call home in the future. As competitive as they were last year, the Minutemen need to turn some of those close loses into wins in order to boost their resume going forward. The conference change, along with the departure of Frohnapfel and Sharpe after this season, make it more important to strike while the iron is hot.