AMHERST, Mass. - A year ago, it was easy to find Charley Molnar in the middle of a team huddle.
UMass' head football coach stuck out amidst a team emaciated by attrition and injuries. Back then, the first-year coach was optimistic after seeing marked improvement from the previous spring, but he knew he just didn't have the depth, yet.
This year, tucked away in a circle containing nearly 100 collegiate football players, it's not that easy finding Charley.
“If I could compare the first practice of 2012 versus 2013, it's a night-and-day difference,” Molnar said. “Just the way the guys looked, the way they worked. (It's) not just the demands that the coaches have that they're trying to meet – it's the demands that they've placed on themselves.”
In its first fall practice of the 2013 season, the UMass football team looked bigger and stronger. With the 2013 recruiting class on hand and a smattering of walk-ons, the Minutemen filled up the practice field. The defensive line unit had some added bulk, and the offensive line had 16 guys practicing – a luxury that wasn't available last year.
The added numbers makes practice a touch easier for the big guys up front.
“At this point last year practice would just kill us because we would only had a few offensive linemen, and they couldn't take reps off so they would be gassed by the end of practice,” said Rob Blanchflower, UMass' starting tight end.
Molnar echoed his captain's sentiment.
“We had 16 (offensive linemen) practice today. I had the biggest smile on my face to know that we could practice, and not have to stop and try to reconfigure things like we did in the spring and even points in the fall,” he said.
Since the team wasn't in pads, Molnar and others were cautious about making any early projections. However, redshirt sophomore quarterback Mike Wegzyn could already tell that there was something different about this year.
Part of it has to do with his own understanding of the game.
“Personally I feel like I understand college football better as a whole. I understand the defenses, and I feel like I have the offense down to a T,” he said. “I feel like I don't have to spend as much time memorizing the plays, but I can help other guys get it down when we're off the field. I can do it on the field, too.”
Wegzyn added that he and other players were training on their own during the summer and worked on fine-tuning the offense. While no coaches were involved with the player-led practices, Wegzyn felt like he improved his game and hopes to carry the momentum into the season.
Both Blanchflower and Wegzyn said they were counting down the days until UMass' August 31 kickoff at Wisconsin.
“We're counting down, we're getting excited for it. I'm ready to 'Jump Around' out there in Madison,” said Wegzyn, lightly poking fun at the Badgers' tradition of literally jumping around to the House of Pain song.
Molnar was also excited for the game but understood that there is a lot to do in the meantime.
“You want to think about Wisconsin, but there is so much development that has to happen between now and then. You don't want to put the cart before the horse,” he said.
Part of the development will be getting the new Minutemen acclimated to the UMass regimen. Molnar said the freshmen were “swimming” out there a bit, and the fifth-year transfers made errors but were adapting well to the new team.
"They were noticeable by their errors as much as their good plays. On most of the errors things were just moving so fast and the defense gave them a couple different looks and then it was all over, they just brain cramped. When they recognized the looks and just performed athletically, I saw all three of the transfer guys make plays today. And I was really glad to see that,” he said.
The three transfers – Ricardo Miller (TE/WR), David Osei (OL) and Justin Anderson (DL) – all came in to fill positions of need, and each looked physically impressive. Anderson particularly looked larger than listed.
UMass will continue to hold closed practices throughout this week and will have open practices starting next Monday for fans and the media.