Sunday, August 17
AMHERST

Liam Coen understands that expectations on him are high this year.

That'll happen when you're on the 2008 Walter Payton Award candidate list as a top player in Division I Football Championship Subdivision, or I-AA.

"The position I'm in right now as a leader of this team and the leader of the offense, that stuff can't even be a factor right now," said the University of Massachusetts quarterback.

Coen has been the Minutemen's starting quarterback since the third game of his redshirt freshman year, has guided his team to a FCS title game as a sophomore and through two playoff games last year.

Coming into to 2008, Coen is not only a Payton candidate, he is the preseason Colonial Athletic Conference offensive player of the year, a preseason second-team All-America and a USA Today national player to watch.

"I take it all in stride," he said of all this preseason hype and hoopla. "I'm pleased to hear people think that that way and I respect people's opinions. I like to be at that level of play at this point in my career, but I have a lot more important things on my mind than that stuff."

Much like UMass coach Don Brown, Coen is a very "the next game" kind of guy, and he'll tell you that the major thing on his mind is the Aug. 30 home opener against Albany.

Last year, Coen started all 13 games and threw for 3,091 yards and 30 touchdowns. He tossed 14 interceptions in 360 attempts. Since Coen has been a starter, the Minutemen are 29-8.

Coen is a fifth-year senior from Newport, R.I., who redshirted upon arrival on the UMass campus, and has been a success almost from the start.

"The bottom line is, any time he's there, we're going to have a chance," said Brown during football media day on Tuesday.

There is no doubt that Coen is in for a challenging year. In addition to the traditionally tough CAA football schedule, UMass has a Sept. 20 night game at Texas Tech.

More importantly, Coen is getting to know an entire new offense.

Not only did UMass graduate leading rusher Matt Lawrence, but also the top four receivers from last season have graduated. The top five returning receivers have caught a combined 46 passes — not as many as J.J. Moore's 80 catches from last year. Coen called developing the chemistry with his new corps of receivers as a challenge, but an exciting one.

"The last few years, we've had the same guys. We really haven't had to have the competition we've had in camp so far," said the quarterback. "If you watch the wide receivers go at it, there's some competition there — those guys are battling. To be able to work with that is more fun than anything."

The UMass preseason depth chart has juniors Victor Cruz and Jeremy Horne as starters at wide receiver, with a sophomore and freshman as backups — along with converted quarterback Joe Sanford. And those inexperienced wideouts may challenge Coen even more than he might think.

"Some of those guys are going to have bad moments," said Brown. "They'll run great routes but they may not catch the ball. (Coen's) got to make sure he keeps them confident and keeps them moving forward.

"He's the guy that's going to set the tone for the offense, if not the entire football team."

And Coen understands how young some of his teammates are.

"You're looking at the year some of these guys were born and there's 1990. I kind of remember 1990," laughed Coen. "I feel old."

To reach Howard Herman: hherman@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 496-6253.