AMHERST, Mass. - "Bigger, stronger and faster" seems to be the theme surrounding the 2013 UMass football team.
Shakur Nesmith reels in a catch during UMass' fall preseason practice on August 12, 2013/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket
Nowhere is that more evident than with the wide receivers.
After an underwhelming 2012, where fifth-year transfer Deion Walker and running back convert Alan Williams were essentially asked to carry the load, UMass has significantly upgraded its wide receiver position through recruiting, transfers and the steady improvement of the guys already on the team. During UMass' first two-a-day practice on Monday, the new-and-improved group was on display as the Minutemen worked on their Red Zone offense.
Particularly impressive was Shakur Nesmith, a wide receiver from Pennsylvania who came to UMass this offseason as a recruited walk-on. The one-time Temple commit reeled in a number of top-shelf throws from quarterback Mike Wegzyn and pulled in a highlight-reel touchdown in the corner of the end zone. Nesmith is a 6-foot-5 receiver and has been getting plenty of reps during the past few practices.
He has been filling in for sophomore Tajae Sharpe, who has been day-to-day with a shoulder ailment, according to head coach Charley Molnar.
“He's really taking advantage of the last two practices with Tajae being out. He's done really well every day at practice. We didn't really know what to expect, but so far, so good,” Molnar said.
The main question surrounding Nesmith is whether he will be able to play during the 2013 season. Molnar did not get into specifics regarding his eligibility but said there aren't any academic issues to speak of.
“There's some things we have to work on, but all-in-all he should be ready to go,” he said. “It's nothing with academics, it's some other things. He joined the program as a walk-on, so there are some other issues we have to figure out.”
Allen Suber, UMass' wide receivers coach, was equally confident with Nesmith's eligibility.
“If he wasn't eligible, he wouldn't be out there,” he said.
Nesmith was unavailable for interviews after practice.
UMass quarterback Mike Wegzyn was impressed with Nesmith but said the freshman has work to do before the season. Wegzyn, who didn't have many tall wideouts to throw to in 2012, was happy to have the new guy around.
“He's still got some work to do, but he's a great athlete. I'm really excited about him athletically. He's definitely gifted: He's got the size, the speed and the hands,” he said. “I am really excited about the upside he has, and he's really catching up quickly. He is one of the good guys in here.”
UMass' Red Zone formation utilized its new-found size. On one play Nesmith lined up next to Derek Beck, who, by necessity, spent time as a tight end last year. Beck and Nesmith were about four-to-five inches bigger than the opposing cornerbacks, which led to several mismatches.
“Mismatches are good. Guys with length and speed are always good in the spread offense. I think they'll give us some good mismatches and dominate some smaller defenders,” Suber said.
Molnar said the added depth at wide receiver is a welcome change from last year.
“We're taller, and when you throw (Rob Blanchflower) into that mix and Tajae (Sharpe), we've got some pretty tall guys that we can put out there on the field,” he said. “It's a completely different feel for us than it was 12 months ago.”
Wegzyn, who is still getting used to all his new targets, said the bigger guys are making his life a little easier.
“To be able to have big targets that you can count on, I love that as a quarterback,” he said. “They are all athletic and have speed, and I can count on them to catch it when I throw it to them. That's something any quarterback would love.”
Added to the mix are freshmen E.J. Burston, Shaquille Harris, D.J. Woods and walk-on Dillon Tighe. Burston and Harris, who were teammates down at Palmetto High School in Florida, have impressed early with their raw ability.
The major hurdle is learning the playbook.
“This is a complex offense, so it's going to take a little bit of time, but you can see the talent when they do know what they're doing. They can make plays,” Suber said.
He was also quick to mention that he “sees a little something” in Tighe, who came to UMass as a recruited walk-on. When asked if he was surprised with Tighe's ability this early in his career, Suber just shook his head.
“He's not a surprise. He's not a surprise at all. That's why we took him. Watch his tape,” he said.
Defense Leads the Way: After the morning two-a-day session, Molnar indicated that UMass' defense is still a few steps ahead of where he wants the offense to be.
“The defense is a little ahead of the offense right now. Sometimes the offense is still struggling. We don't have all of our name parts in there, so to speak,” he said. “We also have one or two offensive linemen that are limited, so that takes away from our cohesion and our consistency.”
UMass' secondary forced Wegzyn to throw the ball away on occasion, and the offensive line had a little trouble picking up the blitz.
Out of the new guys, linebacker Shane Huber looked particularly impressive. Huber stood on the line during goal line blitz package – without his hand in the dirt – and disrupted the offense's blocking scheme. While he didn't record a sack, Huber did well shedding blockers.
Locked and Loaded: During the 2012 season, UMass saw some success when it lined up in the Pistol. At Monday's practice, the Minutemen ran a few plays out of the formation, and Molnar thinks it could be good for a couple of UMass' new running backs.
“I think the Pistol really helps guys like (Lorenzo) Woodley and Daquan (Mack) because they can really get some momentum going. That's their real strength – they can really run behind their pads,” he said.
When talking about Woodley, Molnar said the true freshman is about 220 pounds right now and “blocks surprising well for a freshman.”
Jordan Broadnax, Woodley, Mack, Jamal Wilson and Stacey Bedell all had carries during practice.
Woodley said he's learning quickly, but still has to adjust to UMass' playbook.
“I need to work on my vision right now. We run a lot of zone reads, so I need to work on my vision and hit the holes as hard as I can,” he said, adding that running the ball out of the spread is “fun because I ran it out of high school.”
One O-Line Formation: While UMass will surely mix and match throughout fall camp, there was one offensive line arrangement that looked pretty solid.
It was: Anthony Dima (LT), Tyrell Smith (LG), Matt Sparks (C), Fabian Hoeller (RG) and David Osei (RT).
This is going to be an interesting group to watch.
For those involved in the Maroon Musket "White Whale Watch:" Cameron Mock took some snaps during practice at right tackle and, while slightly hobbled, held his own. Once Mock is close to 100 percent, I can see him making a difference.