UMass ready for D-I FBS football debut
AMHERST -- There is a clock in the University of Massachusetts' football team locker room. It does not tell you what time it is right now.
Rather, that clock is counting backwards -- and it will read 0:00 at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 30.
"I remember telling these guys in the last school year that we have UConn as our first game and it's not going to be anything light," said running back Chris Burns, who transferred to UMass from the University of Pittsburgh. "You guys have never played at this level before.
"They're going to be bigger, faster and stronger. At the end of the day it's a step up. If you want something you've never had, you have to do something you've never done."
The Minutemen are making their move into the Division I-Football Bowl Subdivision as the newest member of the Mid-American Conference. Their first game is a non-league affair against the University of Connecticut of the Big East.
First-year coach Charley Molnar and his players were on display at McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Wednesday for the program's annual Media Day. But it was the first time reporters asked the Minutemen players and coaches about teams like UConn and Michigan, and not about teams like Delaware or James Madison.
Molnar, who is in his first head coaching job after 28 years of being a college assistant, arrived in Amherst after spending two years as Brian Kelly's offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. He went to South Bend after three years at Cincinnati as Kelly's passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach.
The Minutemen are at the mid-point of their practice schedule, and the first-year coach described his team as making progress. He said that the Minutemen are where he thought they would be at this point of the preseason schedule.
"Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not," he said. "We have a long way to go. I think we have enough time to get there if we work diligently, the guys pay attention and stay healthy. With a little luck, I think we'll be ready by the first football game."
That first football game is on the road. The Minutemen will play their home opener the following Saturday against Indiana of the Big Ten. That game, and the rest of the UMass home games, will be played at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. It's part of a deal the university reached last year with Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
"It is a big stadium, and we do intend to fill it up. We know we need our fans from Western Mass.," said Molnar. "I know the Patriots draw from all over New England. They're diehard fans and they'll find a way to get [to Foxborough] for seven or eight Sundays a year. I think our fans can find a way to make it there for five Saturdays.
"We're going to give them a great product. I can't tell you it's going to be pretty every single time out there. But I know our guys are going to play hard."
Other than the step up from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Bowl Championship Subdivision, Molnar's biggest adjustment concerns his quarterback. Kellen Pagel, who started most of the games last year, is out of action with post-concussion syndrome. In fact, Pagel tooled around Media Day in his uniform and a pair of sunglasses.
That means redshirt freshman Mike Wegzyn is No. 1 right now. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound quarterback from Knoxville, Tenn., will be backed up at the start by true freshman A.J. Doyle of Catholic Memorial.
"That doesn't mean he's going to start the opener. A.J. Doyle is a true freshman and has only been on campus a couple of weeks. To say that he's going to get the ball first against the University of Connecticut, that's a big challenge for any young man," Molnar said. "I think our quarterbacks are grasping the system much more than they did in the spring."
Wegzyn said he isn't feeling too much pressure as the current No. 1 quarterback. He said it's more a feeling of excitement.
"I can't wait to get the season started," he said. "Every day we come out on the field and we keep getting better and better."
The Minutemen open their season with three non-league games, two against Big Ten foes. In addition to the Indiana game at Gillette Stadium, UMass will head to the Big House the following weekend for a Sept. 15 game against Michigan. Two years ago, former head coach Kevin Morris took UMass into Ann Arbor, and the Wolverines escaped with a 42-37 win.
"We're going to be out-talented in some football games -- that's reality," said Molnar. "We're taking a team that was recruited as I-AA players. They've cut their teeth playing I-AA football and now they're going to move up and play a higher notch.
"The Mid-American Conf erence is not going to be confused with the SEC, but it is I-A football. There are 85 scholarship guys on the team and [there] is definitely much greater talent across the board in the MAC."