Back in August, when sunburns still came easy and sweatshirts were collecting that odd, stagnant drawer smell, reporters were able to get their first look at the UMass football team.
UMass' offensive line has been its most improved unit this year/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket
There was obviously something different. Numbers were up, guys were in better shape, and it was pretty clear that the Minutemen were taking on an upgraded look, so to speak. One of the biggest changes – both figuratively and otherwise – was on the offensive line, perhaps the team's greatest weakness in 2012.
While there was plenty of inexperience, UMass' offensive front had depth and a lot more size. Anthony Dima, the team's hulking left tackle, transformed himself into a no-doubt NFL prospect. Vincent Westcarr seemed healthier and was still very much the size of an aircraft carrier. The other guys were mysteries, but they were big, healthy mysteries, which is more than the 2012 squad brought to the table.
The results were immediately obvious. Against teams like Wisconsin, Kansas State and Vanderbilt, the new-and-improved line kept BCS dogs out of the backfield and gave its ever-changing quarterback more time in the pocket. The run blocking improved, too, but that's a little harder to quantify when you essentially have three rookies barreling out of the backfield for a team that runs the ball less than anyone in the Mid-American Conference (196 attempts).
“Can you even imagine what Mike Cox would have done with this line?” a good friend of mine asked.
It can be comfortably argued that UMass' offensive line is its most-improved unit, and Anthony Dima is its most-improved player.
"The group is starting to jell much the way that we hoped it would. We still roll some different guys in there, but at the end of the day, there are five or six guys who have been pretty solid for us, if not spectacular," Molnar said during the MAC teleconference. "I like the way they play - they are tough, they are assignment sound, it's not always pretty, but they get the job done."
Dima and the gang will face its biggest test this weekend against Khalil Mack and the Buffalo Bulls.
Everything has already been said about Mack: He's the best linebacker in the conference and likely a first-round NFL draft pick. You know what you're getting from him, and UMass' entire offensive scheme will take Mack into account. This concept is not new for head coach Charley Molnar or offensive line coach Dave Johnson. Think back to Week 1 when the Minutemen had to figure out Chris Borland, Wisconsin's Mike backer.
The main concern is whether UMass' play calling will be its own worst enemy. The offensive line, which until last Saturday led the MAC in sacks allowed, had trouble blocking the read option against Miami (OH). The Redhawks ran wild in the backfield and frequently gobbled up UMass running backs or quarterback AJ Doyle.
UMass has been pretty solid at zone blocking all season, but with a hobbled quarterback and rookie running backs, the correct reads weren't made with any level of confidence. Doyle held onto the ball too long, Wilson or Stacey Bedell chose the wrong hole, or, quite simply, Miami's defensive ends sniffed out the play.
Against Buffalo, things will only get worse. The Bulls lead the conference in sacks (21), and Mack is No. 2 out of all players with six of his own. If the Minutemen try to parade a gimpy Doyle out there and make him run the read option, he can expect a face full of Buffalo turf.
If the play calls fit Buffalo's excellent talent, UMass' offensive line will still be tested every single play. No matter what, the big fellas are going to have to keep their quarterback upright and open holes for the runners.
They've been doing a pretty good job so far.