The University of Massachusetts has entered the realm of the FBS Independents, and they will be facing their toughest ever schedule in 2016 with a lot of new faces getting a good deal of playing time. In Friday night's spring game, the Minutemen coaching staff got a chance to see which players have stood out in their quest to be on the field when UMass opens 2016 in The Swamp against the Florida Gators.
The game itself, which ended in a 6-3 victory for Team White over Team Maroon, is not as important as the individual performances from players looking to gain starting spots or significant playing time for next season. Some players did quite a bit to separate themselves, while others struggled in what for some was their biggest opportunity to date.
On offense, UMass needs to replace its best-ever wide receiver in Tajae Sharpe and a potential NFL prospect at quarterback in Blake Frohnapfel. Ross Comis, last season's backup and current presumptive starter, looked the best of the three QBs on the roster by far, showing the strongest arm and his trademark mobility. Comis is the guy, at least until JUCO transfer Andrew Ford arrives on campus in the summer, then the real position battle will begin.
The two remaining QBs on the roster, Randall West and James Sosinski, played the majority of Friday's game with differing results. West looks like he should be the #2 guy at the moment, as he displayed more consistency and accuracy than Sosinski in their reps. Sosinski, a 6'7" redshirt freshman, has a great deal of potential but also still has a lot to learn. He threw the only INT of the game on a bad forced pass, and missed throws on several occasions.
Replacing Sharpe at WR is arguably a more difficult task, but UMass has several options available to them that they didn't last year. Jalen Williams and Bernard Davis, who both redshirted last season, looked the best of anyone in yesterday's game. Williams made a great sideline catch on a deep ball throw from West, and Davis had several nice possession grabs. Redshirt freshman Lamarriel Taylor also flashed, but in a more limited capacity. Drops were a concern for the entire unit in the game however, surely a point of emphasis for the coaching staff. Incoming recruit Brennon Dingle should also have a big chance to be an impact player right away in the fall.
UMass is fairly set at the RB spot with returning true sophomore starter Marquis Young, but former LB John Robinson-Woodgett, who has been converted to fullback, had a great game as a power runner, perhaps the offensive MVP of the evening. For a former defender he looks very comfortable on the offensive side.
The tight end position is one that UMass has been trying to address ever since Jean Sifrin left for the NFL Draft after the 2014 season. They got almost nothing from the position last year, and we did not see much from the available options yesterday. Redshirt freshman Travis Reynolds probably looked the best, but no one stood out. This is a spot where UMass' incoming recruits (Taylor Edwards, Avien Peah, and Cody Banks), can look to possibly play right away.
On defense, UMass needs to replace nearly their entire starting secondary, along with an impact inside linebacker in Jovan Santos-Knox. Having lost both starting cornerbacks from 2015 (Randall Jette could be a priority free agent for some NFL teams), that position is of great importance. Redshirt freshman Brandon Mangram was perhaps the defensive MVP, breaking up several passes and hauling in the only INT. He also had the hit of the game along the sideline in the 3rd quarter. True sophomore James Oliphant also did well, although he'd like to have back the sure Pick-6 he dropped. Oliphant also did well in the kick return game where he was UMass' primary option last year. The Minutemen have several incoming recruits in the defensive backfield that could also make an immediate impact, like Cycoby Burch and Martin Mangram. Position battles in the secondary will be fierce come the fall.
UMass had a great deal of trouble disrupting QBs last season, which they need to improve upon going into a much tougher schedule in 2016. Redshirt freshman D'Shan Harley flashed very well Friday, deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage and showing great speed in registering one of the game's few sacks. Senior LB Peter Ngobidi and junior LB Da'sean Downey also performed very well.
Special teams has been a UMass issue for years, although performances in this game by punter Logan Laurent and placekicker Michael Caggiano should hopefully be able to alleviate the Minutemen's concerns in that area. Both performed well.
UMass has a very important season ahead of them in 2016, and they have to face it with a lot of change and youth on the field. Friday's game showed that there is a lot of talent in the Minutemen locker room, and they will need to continue to put the work in to be ready for next season.
You can check out highlights from the game below, courtesy of UMass Athletics.