AMHERST — Like much of America, University of Massachusetts football coach Walt Bell has moved his office from the Jacobson Performance Center adjacent to McGuirk Alumni Stadium to his dining room table.
Much like the vast majority of coaches across the country, Bell said that he's been home more because of the COVID-19 pandemic than he had been in his football career.
"The good of it has been, I might have been able to spend more time with my wife [Maria] then I ever have at this time of the year," he said.
Working from a dining room table with computer monitors and laptops has also given Bell another positive.
"The other positive is being here with not distraction," he said. "I'm probably not very even-keeled from a work-life standpoint as it is. From 7 to 7, the amount of efficiency that we've been able to have, from 7 in the morning to 7 at night, the amount of recruiting that we've been able to get done and the amount of relationship-building with Zooms, with Face Times, when there's not a lot left to do, has been incredible."
UMass was 1-11 in Bell's first season as head coach. It was a season where, by the end of the year, the Minutemen had 16 underclassmen playing on each side of the ball. In fact, heading into the 2019 finale against BYU, eight members of the offensive two-deep were either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. On defense, the number of freshmen or redshirt freshmen was nine.
"Obviously, we missed spring football. From a development standpoint, setting a depth chart and some of that stuff is going to get pushed back," Bell said. "We feel pretty strong about where we are right now."
While spring football practice was canceled due to the pandemic, Bell said, in an interview with The Eagle, that up until the first day of spring football, everything had gone like clockwork.
Several members of the incoming recruiting class had enrolled in January, and were part of the team during the second semester work sessions.
"At the end of the day, we had a great nine weeks. We got to do everything we had planned on doing in terms of weight room, strength and conditioning, pre-spring prep," Bell said. "We got sent home, really, the Friday before spring practice. So we didn't miss a day of our pre-spring training."
Bell said that the football team members have compiled a combined grade-point average of 3.39, something which he said he is extremely proud of. In addition. the team is on target for a record APR (Academic Progress Rate).
While spring football did not exist, Bell said he and his staff have been doing what they need to, but doing things differently.
"After that spring break ended, we've been doing everything that we would normally do," Bell said. "Staff meet every day, recruit every day, [offense and defense] meet every day, meet with our players every single day, academics, tutors. We've been doing every main function, not only as a football staff but with our team every day. The NCAA has thrown a couple of evolutions over the last two months that allows us to do more and more and more with our kids."
Since the February signing date, UMass has added a quarterback to the mix in former Rutgers recruit Zamar Wise. Wise comes to Amherst from Milford Academy, where he went for a post-graduate season.
Wise, a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder, had committed to Rutgers in 2017. He had been recruited by Kansas, Oregon, Minnesota and UCLA before deciding on Rutgers. Academics force Wise to Milford, where he had an outstanding PG year.
"When I was offensive coordinator at Maryland, we offered him as a sophomore in high school," Bell said of the Newark, N.J. athlete. "[Wise is] an incredible athlete, a great ball-in-hand player. In high school. he did everything. He's going to have a chance to be a fantastic quarterback for us. At the end of the day, we're recruiting him as the best athlete we can theoretically get our hands on. We'll give him a chance to play quarterback. Whatever he ends up being, he's a fantastic athlete and he's going to help upgrade our program."
The second-year head coach said that while the experts and governmental leaders will be the ones to eventually lift the curtain on playing football again, Bell was optimistic that — at some point — there will be football again.
"Every single day, you can start to see that snowball of positivity start to roll," he said. "I know there will be football. I know in the majority of the country, there's going to be football. They're going to play high school football in Georgia. They're going to play high school football in Florida. Every day you're starting to see that ball of positivity rolling. Obviously, safety of the kids is the most important thing. It's much more positive every single day. Now the question is just how and when. But that's a much better question."
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.