The spread offense is supposed to live up to its namesake.
DJ Woods and the rest of UMass' receiving corps will need to step up this weekend against Kansas State/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket
Opposing defenses should react to horizontal spacing by stretching out across the field. The open space created by this stretch is supposed to open seams through which wide receivers and running backs can operate without congestion. In theory, the quarterback, who is lined up in the shotgun, can survey this evolving chessboard and find windows to hit open receivers.
Since adopting the spread offense in Amherst, the University of Massachusetts' football team has seen more closed doors than open windows.
While there is a multitude of reasons for UMass' inability to adopt head coach Charley Molnar's offense, a major contributor has been the play of its wide receivers. Throughout the 2012 campaign, the Minutemen relied on Deion Walker's superior athleticism and Alan Williams' fearless approach to find pay dirt through the air.
Even then, UMass only had nine passing touchdowns on the year. Its opponents had 26.
With the graduation of Walker and Williams, and a mysteriously undisclosed injury to captain and tight end Rob Blanchflower, the Minutemen have been searching high and low for a new No. 1 receiving option. Shakur Nesmith, a true freshman, looked the part, but he has been injured since Wisconsin and wasn't up to speed with the playbook.
Sophomore Tajae Sharpe has been targeted the most and leads the team with 98 yards on 12 receptions, but after Maine, Molnar indicated that he wasn't the No. 1 because the team didn't actually have a top target.
Against Kansas State, the entire unit is going to have to step up.
The Minutemen are going to need more from the likes of Elgin Long and Bernard Davis, who have had a conspicuously quiet start to their careers despite coming to UMass from talent-rich Texas and Florida, respectively. It will also be interesting to actually see Kevin Lovaincy, a local kid with size (6-foot-4, 185 pounds) who has been listed on the depth chart but absent on the field.
UMass fans are also starting to wonder about the Sunshine State trio – Shaq Harris, E.J. Burston and D.J. Woods – who were all highly touted 2013 recruits. Molnar and staff spoke glowingly of Burston during fall camp, but the true freshman has been seldom targeted and has only two catches for 18 yards. Harris, Burston's high school teammate, hasn't touched the ball, yet.
Of course, folks will be expecting a lot from Ricardo Miller, who has lined up almost everywhere for the Minutemen. The Michigan transfer had 22 yards receiving against Wisconsin but missed the Maine game with an injury. Derek Beck, who looked like a fall camp candidate to be the team's most-improved player, had a decent game in Madison but fell flat in UMass' home opener.
Blanchflower? Who knows? The face of Molnar's Made in Massachusetts campaign hasn't been in pads for awhile and missed the home opener – a game many (including yours truly) thought Molnar was resting him for.
The Wildcats are going to bring the heat in Manhattan, as they are looking for linebacker pressure to make up for an inexperienced defensive front. That means receivers are going to be open, and if UMass' quarterback (I'm guessing A.J. Doyle) gets even a hint of time, he should be able to make plays.
However, that requires Allen Suber's boys to know their routes and not stare at the sidelines begging for guidance. It also means that, when they aren't involved, the young runners can't be afraid to block the opposing secondary – a problem that reared its soft, ugly head numerous times.
The Wildcats, much like Maine and Wisconsin, are going to keep an eye on the wideouts, but it's likely their reputation has preceded them. They are probably known has a relatively soft group that doesn't know their routes and, for the most part, inexplicably fears contact. That's going to lead to some single coverage, heavy blitzes and even more pressure on a backfield that barely has time to breathe as is.
Kansas State provides UMass' receivers with an opportunity to shed the stigma and maybe make a little noise after two disappointing weeks.