AMHERST, Mass. - Throughout the 2012 season, UMass' offensive line couldn't keep opposing defenses out of the backfield. The group, which struggled through injuries and inexperience, never seemed to jell, and the result was catastrophic for the offense.
UMass' 2013 offensive line at Media Day/Andy Heller for the Maroon Musket
Opposing teams sacked UMass quarterbacks 32 times, and the Minuteman rushing attack – paced by New York Giants' draft pick Mike Cox – scrounged up a paltry 2.6 yards per attempt.
Things seemed to get even worse after the season. Ron Hudson, the team's offensive line coach, hit the road. Michael Boland and Jaime Casselberry, two promising young prospects, also left the team. The thin group started to look even more disorganized, which had UMass fans pulling at their collars.
During the offseason, UMass head man Charley Molnar brought in offensive line coach Dave Johnson, and the staff went out and signed seven big bodies to fill in. Added to the mix was David Osei, a fifth-year transfer from Rutgers with experience at every position on the line. Vincent Westcarr decided to come back for his final year, and three walk-ons joined the fray.
While inexperience abounds, the offensive line actually has a two-deep, which is something it never quite put together in 2012.
“We're better now than we were in the spring, and we're getting better every day,” Johnson said. “We're still not where we want to be, but we're working hard and trying to work through different combinations and find the best five.”
The Minutemen currently have “eight or nine” guys working with the first team, according to Johnson, a 28-year coaching veteran. He said that only two positions are set - Anthony Dima at left tackle and Matt Sparks at center.
“I think Sparks is pretty much locked on the center position, not that other guys can't play the position,” he said. “I'm real happy with (Fabian) Hoeller. I think he has done a good job of coming in. He's caught on to some things a lot faster than I thought.”
He added that Hoeller, a freshman who came to UMass from Germany, is a little more mature than some of the other new guys. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound newcomer has also taken snaps at guard and looks to push for playing time right away.
If preseason formations are any indicator, Dima (LT), Tyrell Smith (LG), Sparks (C), Westcarr (RG) and Osei (RT) are a likely combination, with the likes of Hoeller and others filling in where needed.
Some of the other newcomers are still “swimming” a bit, Johnson said, but he has been impressed with Tyshon Henderson, a Rhode Island native who has been getting snaps at both left and right tackle. The 6-foot-7, 339-pound athlete is already the biggest guy on the team and has shown flashes of promise during fall camp.
Henderson's problem is keeping his foot on the gas.
“Tyshon started out impressing me and doing some things, but then once you install the rest of the offense, it kind of has an accumulation affect on guys,” Johnson said. “He's kind of leveled off a little bit. He's doing well, and I'm pleased with his progress. He has size, but he just doesn't know how to go hard every time.”
Freshman Sam Zeff and JUCO transfer Josh Bruns enrolled at UMass during the spring and have had some extra time getting used to the offense. Both were still learning the playbook when they took the field during the Spring Game but looked ready to push for early playing time.
Johnson, who is very straightforward with his thoughts on the unit, said he was hoping for a little more from both athletes.
“I would hope (their progression) would show a little more than it has. They should be a little further along than they are, in terms of knowing what to do. They need to learn how to do it,” he said.
Leading the group is Dima, a 6-foot-7, 302-pound NFL prospect. Throughout camp, pro scouts have been watching the hulking left tackle. Johnson thinks Dima has the ability to make it at the next level, but he has to prove himself during the toughest part of UMass' schedule.
“I think he has a chance. He plays hard, and he's a fast-twitch guy and has really good feet for a lineman. He has the physical tools that they're looking for as far as size and foot quickness. It's just a matter of him polishing, getting exact and trying to play with as much excellence as possible,” he said. “I think he's got eyes on him now – he's on the radar. These first couple of games are important for him. Those are the games that the NFL guys want to watch. If he wants postseason accolades, those are the games he has to excel in.”
He said guys like Dima don't “panic” as much as the younger guys, which is something the freshmen need to figure out before playing against FBS defensive lines in big-time college stadiums.
The first test is against Wisconsin, a Big 10 program known for its deafening crowds and monstrous, Midwestern defensive lines.
“You know, it's Camp Panic,” Johnson said, referring to Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium. “You just have to stay with what you've been taught. You have to make sure they stay fundamentally sound. They have to work on fundamentals, work on what they've been coached, and hopefully as an offense we don't have turnovers and don't make penalties. That will give us a chance to be in the ballgame and compete and hopefully come around in the fourth quarter.”