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A farewell statement year for Minutemen
This season is unlike any the players on the University of Massachusetts football team have ever prepared for.
The preseason seems the same. The schedule looks the same. The preseason accolades are already rolling in for some of the Minutemen’s top players.
But no matter how well UMass plays this season, no matter how good its record is against Colonial Athletic Association opponents, its season will end on Nov. 19 against James Madison with no chance for the postseason.
This season is UMass’ last in the Championship Subdivision, with the Minutemen moving up to the Bowl Subdivision and the Mid-American Conference in 2012. Because of the transition process, the team is not eligible for a playoff berth.
But the players still find themselves motivated for 2011.
“There’s really nothing that needs to be said. Everybody’s on the same page. We all know what this year means to the university. It’s a big transition year. It’s a big year to leave the CAA on a good note,” said defensive lineman Brandon Potvin, a redshirt sophomore and former Holy Name star from Worcester. “And it’s a good year to finish the teams off that we didn’t finish off last year, like Rhode Island and Delaware. It’s a good year to go undefeated.”
Even seniors like tight end Emil Igwenagu, also a former Holy Name standout who’ll be a captain for the second straight season, and running back Jonathan Hernandez of Leominster have plenty to play for.
“We look at every game like a playoff game. We want to win every game and come out with a winning season,” Hernandez said. “It’s our last year in the CAA, so we want to win it out this year.”
While UMass’ biggest question mark coming into the season has been quarterback — sophomore Brandon Hill and junior Kellen Pagel are the front-runners so far — a wealth of Central Mass. products make the offense a positive.
Hernandez is taking control of a backfield he split with John Griffin of Westminster last season, while Igwenagu is finally healthy after having suffered multiple injuries in 2010.
“Emil looks great, and he’s full of piss and vinegar because of last year, where he was hobbled all year,” said third-year head coach Kevin Morris, who previously coached at WPI. “He’s so instrumental on our offense. (Offensive coordinator and Leominster native) Brian Picucci puts him in all kinds of places for different matchup reasons. He’s really got to produce for us in order for us to be as balanced as we’d like to be.”
The passing attack is supplemented by Leominster’s Rob Blanchflower, a former St. John’s tight end who stepped into a bigger role as a redshirt freshman last season after Igwenagu went down.
“Emil and Rob Blanchflower are great tight ends. They catch the ball well, and they can also block real well,” Hernandez said. “We spread the ball, and we open up the running game. And with the running game, we’ll open up the passing game.”
This season is also a transition year for the defense, which is switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment. Potvin, along with redshirt sophomore Theo Agnew and redshirt junior Chas Thompson, will anchor the now-smaller front line.
“It’s one less person on the field to communicate with in terms of having that defensive chemistry, that bond, but we’ve done a real good job picking it up so far,” Potvin said. “We’re clicking very well.”
Potvin has prepared himself for his altered role by focusing on conditioning.
“He’s a little bit more mobile than last year, he cut a little weight in terms of body fat, so we’re very excited about him and what he’s going to do in this defense,” Morris said.
“He recognizes the defense and what the pluses and the minuses are. His strength is strength, and he’s built some quickness into that.”
The season will begin with a homecoming of sorts for UMass’ Central Mass. players when the Minutemen kick off at Holy Cross Thursday night. While they might not be motivated by playoff success, they still have plenty to play for.
UMass at a glance
Coach (record): Kevin Morris (third season, 11-11).
League: Colonial Athletic Association.
2010 record: 6-5, 4-4 league.
Top returnees: RB Jonathan Hernandez (Leominster, 938 rushing yards, 10 TDs), TE Rob Blanchflower (Leominster/St. John’s, 21 catches, 179 yards, 3 TDs), TE Emil Igwenagu (Boylston/Holy Name, 12 catches, 142 yards), DE Brandon Potvin (Worcester/Holy Name), WR Dominique Price (Worcester/Holy Name), So. QB Brandon Hill, Jr. QB Kellen Pagel, So. DL Theo Agnew, Jr. DL Chas Thompson.
Key losses: RB John Griffin (843 rushing yards, 5 TDs).
Notable newcomers: DL Kyle Morgan (Milford).
Sept. 1…at Holy Cross, 8 p.m.
Sept. 17…Rhode Island, 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 24…at Boston College, TBA
Oct. 1…at Old Dominion, 6 p.m.
Oct. 8…Central Connecticut, 6 p.m.
Oct. 15…at Delaware, 3:30 p.m.
x-Oct. 22…New Hampshire, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 29…at Richmond, 1 p.m.
Nov. 5…Villanova, 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 12…at Maine, 12:30 p.m.
Nov. 19…James Madison, 1 p.m.
x-at Gillette Stadium
By Kerri Fleming, THE TELEGRAM & GAZETTE