Fall practice is here, and with that comes the first look at UMass' 2013 recruiting class. It goes without saying that each of these guys was promised early playing time. UMass coach Charley Molnar has made it a point to say that he does not recruit anyone to redshirt.
With that being said, I've taken an early look at what I expect from this class – dubbed the best in school history by Molnar and others.
UMass' biggest weakness in 2012 was in the trenches, and the 2013 recruiting class was largely built around fixing that problem. The Minutemen brought in nine athletes listed as offensive linemen, essentially adding a whole new two-deep to the roster. A few of these guys are projects, a couple will probably play defense, but most will be asked to lace them up right away.
Sam Zeff and Josh Bruns have already been on campus for a semester and are going to play a lot right away. It may take a little while for both to get used to the grind of an FBS season, but it's clear that UMass coaches want these guys to make a difference from day one. Both looked pretty solid during the Spring Game and spent the summer learning the playbook. It will be interesting to see how much size they put on during the summer workouts.
Jordan Page and Richard Queen are two Garden State recruits who will likely get snaps early. Both played against high-quality competition in New Jersey and come to Amherst with FBS size. I was told by a source that Queen is a quality under-the-radar guy who will make a difference right away. Page is big, and my preseason projection is that he will be the best true freshman lineman this season.
Tyshon Henderson is a giant of a man, but he has never really been tested. Down in Rhode Island, he was always the biggest guy on the field, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to guys his own size. I think he can play, but it may take some time for him to get adjusted.
Fabian Holler is tough to project because he cut his teeth against defensive linemen in Germany. However, one source told me that a number of guys he went against were in their mid-20s, so he already has experience going against full-grown men. Holler was the surprise of the 2012 class and may be a sleeper pick to be the best new lineman. Right now, it's too hard to tell.
Enock Asante and Elijah Wilkinson will probably end up as defensive linemen. Asante will likely redshirt to put on some size and spend time learning the playbook – he has only played organized football for four years. Wilkinson will probably play defensive tackle if he isn't on the O-line. He is a big kid and may get some snaps if injuries force the issue.
Terrel Correia will likely redshirt. He has to put some weight on his projectable frame and make the switch from tight end to offensive tackle. It will be very interesting to see what becomes of the Bay State recruit. At 6-foot-7 and the ability to hit more than 300 pounds, he could be a big get for the program.
Sharif Custis was the only tight end signee from the 2013 class, unless you think Correia will defy expectations. Custis is in an interesting situation: He can either see a good deal of playing time, or simply redshirt and prepare for the 2014 season.
If things pan out as expected, Custis will be behind team captain Rob Blanchflower and Michigan transfer Ricardo Miller. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Howard will also get a lot of reps after an impressive spring. Those who attended the Spring Game noticed that Howard put on some significant size and was arguably the game's MVP.
Attrition thinned out the depth chart a bit as Nevin Cyr decided to leave the team. Unless someone changes positions (or if Derek Beck remains at the position), the Minutemen will be pretty thin, and Custis could step in. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound athlete may need to put on a little size if he hopes to contribute in year one.
This will be one of the more fun positions to watch unfold. UMass picked up three highly regarded linebackers during the 2013 cycle, and each will likely be asked to step in and contribute from day one.
Shane Huber, one of the first three-star recruits to commit to the Minutemen, already has FBS-level size and looks impressive both in pursuit and coverage. Stanley Andre will likely hold down the Mike position, but I can see Huber providing some relief. I've also been told that Huber can play on the outside – a position that will be a little more cluttered with Jovan Santos-Knox and others vying for time. One way or another, Phil Elmassian is going to make room for the highly touted New Jersey product.
UMass got in early on Steve Casali and may have hit jackpot. Three sources have told me that Casali is the most talented defensive recruit in UMass' 2013 class and could have easily picked up scholarships from larger programs. The Long Island native is a high-energy athlete and has a magnetic draw to the football. Casali showed up at the Spring Game and looked like he was already adding muscle to his projectable frame. By the end of the 2013 season, it would not surprise me if Casali led all freshmen in tackles.
Peter Ngobidi may be this year's version of Kassan Messiah. The Catholic Memorial grad is considered by most to be a tweener – half linebacker/half defensive end. He has a nose for the ball and was a “special player in Massachusetts,” according to one source who follows high school ball in the Bay State. Ngobidi likely needs to get a college lifting cycle under his belt before he puts his hand in the turf, but the 6-foot-2, 200-pound athlete will likely get reps at linebacker when UMass lines up in a 4-3 set.
While the numbers might not show it, UMass' young secondary was one of the team's few strengths. In the 2013 class, the Minutemen didn't put too much of an emphasis on defensive backs and only brought in two athletes: Arthur Williams and Jackson Porter.
Williams is a Florida recruit who can play either cornerback or safety for the Minutemen. Considering his size and UMass' depth at corner, it wouldn't surprise me to see Williams line up deep. The Sebring High School standout will bring a little extra maturity to Amherst. Williams lost some time in high school when his mom passed away after a long battle with cancer. The FHSAA granted Williams a waiver to finish his high school career, and he will arrive at UMass as a rare 20-year-old freshman. I can see him being asked to fill some of the gap left behind by Darren Thellen.
Jackson Porter projects as a cornerback, but a few sites have labeled him an “athlete” - a guy who doesn't really have a position, yet. Assuming Porter comes in as a cornerback, he will have to fight for time with upperclassmen. There isn't a ton out there about Porter, so we will just have to wait and see what Elmassian has planned.
Throughout the 2012 season, UMass fans knew there was a serious depth problem at running back. Mike Cox, a fifth-year Michigan transfer, held things down, but injuries and inexperience thinned out a position that has for years been UMass' strength. After Lorenzo Woodley and Daquan Mack signed their letters of intent, those same fans changed their tune to, “Wait, what are we going to do with all of these running backs?”
Heading into camp, Jordan Broadnax and Stacey Bedell will be battling for the position, but Woodley is going to make a serious push for some carries. The Florida recruit is the highest-rated signee from UMass' 2013 class and was an 11th-hour commit after a few things fell through. Woodley is the definition of an all-purpose back and will get plenty of opportunities to show off his skill. My prediction: Woodley and Bedell combine for more than 1,000 yards, while Broadnax leads the team in all-purpose yards.
Mack is a big, punishing back who projects as an FBS fullback. Mack likely won't split carries with UMass' more-athletic backs, but he will be asked to block and possibly get a few goal-line carries. It will be interesting to see where Mack fits in the spread – an offensive set that doesn't typically require a fullback.
Todd Stafford was the first recruit to verbal to UMass during the 2013 cycle and has been a bit of an anomaly since. The Connecticut native is huge (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and has an absolute cannon. Those who stuck around after the Spring Game saw Stafford effortlessly toss 40-yard bombs down the field to some friends. However, there wasn't much fanfare surrounding Stafford in high school, and very few programs showed interest – something that may be attributed to some injuries that popped up during his career.
Stafford will likely redshirt this season, as UMass is still in the process of letting Mike Wegzyn and AJ Doyle duke it out for the starting spot. There is enough depth to keep the third-string position filled, and it will take time for Stafford to learn the playbook.
If UMass hopes to improve in 2013, it will need more production from its wide receivers. Wide receivers coach Allen Suber went down to the Sunshine State and hit the recruiting trail hard. He came up with three speedy wideouts who will push for time right away.
E.J. Burston and Shaquille Harris played together at Palmetto High School and were being courted by a number of low-level Florida schools and MAC programs. The teammates chose UMass over a similar arrangement at Toledo, which was a pretty big recruiting victory for the Minutemen. Both Burston and Harris project to be downfield threats and have the size and speed to be dangerous over the top. The Minutemen had major problems spreading the field out, and these two are coming with the intention of fixing that right away.
Donnice Woods was the first wide receiver to commit and will likely fill in at the slot receiver spot. With graduation and attrition, Woods will get an early chance to impress Suber. Woods is another big get for UMass – he chose the Minutemen over offers from Indiana and Kentucky.
Make no mistake about it – the UMass coaching staff was absolutely pumped when Peter Angeh signed his letter of intent. On national signing day, Angeh was the last recruit to sign the dotted line, and when the fax came in, those in the area could hear UMass coaches cheer and dish out high-fives.
Angeh looks like he is ready to suit and and play tomorrow. UMass has some quality upperclassmen at the defensive end position, but Angeh will get a chance to prove himself early. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound recruit had a ton of offers, and was down to UMass and Ohio when he verballed. On his list of reasons for choosing UMass: Playing time.
One recruiting expert gave me a call after watching Angeh's video and said, “How did UMass get this guy? More specifically, how is Maryland not interested?” He liked Angeh's feet and pursuit, and indicated that he can be useful in both the 4-3 and 3-4. It will be interesting to see if he lines up against Wisconsin.