UMass Georgia Southern Football

UMass running back Ellis Merriweather and the Minutemen offensive line are being called upon by coach Walt Bell to improve on their performance against Georgia Southern in the opener.

There wasn’t a lot to be happy with after the University of Massachusetts’ 41-0 loss to Georgia Southern in the Minutemen’s 2020 opener. Head coach Walt Bell said after that game that one thing he was most disappointed about was the inability of his team to run the football.

It may not have been the reason, but the second-year head coach made a change on his coaching staff in the days following the Georgia Southern game. Meeting with reporters on a Zoom call on Thursday, Bell said that co-offensive line coach Jim Jackson had been let go and Micah James had the “co” removed from his title.

“I made that decision, probably last Friday. Really more than anything else, it was just what we thought — not necessarily we — but what I thought was best for our program moving forward,” Bell said, in response to a question from The Eagle. “For our players and just for our program moving forward. We made that decision. The good news is that we had two o-line coaches to start, and now Coach James will take over the whole group and we’ll move forward.”

Against Georgia Southern, UMass ran the ball 32 times for only 111 yards, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. The three UMass quarterbacks who played in the game — starter Mike Fallon, Josiah Johnson and Will Koch — gained 90 of those 111 net yards.

“To be honest with you, even though we’ve only had 16 or 17 practices and haven’t been able to kind of have a full camp,” Bell said after the game, “I honestly, in my heart, felt we would run the football better.”

Running back Ellis Merriweather ran that day for only 21 net yards in 16 carries.

Both James and Jackson were in their second seasons on Bell’s staff in Amherst. Jackson had far more experience in college coaching. He had spent the previous five years as the offensive line coach and one year as the offensive coordinator at Division I-FCS University of San Diego. Jackson had also coached at Southern Illinois, Minnesota, Louisiana-Lafayette, Toledo, Lehigh and Methodist.

James had spent his previous four years working as a graduate assistant at Arkansas State, Maryland and UCF. While at Arkansas State, and Maryland, he had worked with Bell.

“They were already splitting the position to begin with,” Bell said of the switch. “Now, it’s just managing an entire group. I’ve got a great amount of confidence in Coach James. From a coaching standpoint, from a relationship-building standpoint, and definitely from a recruiting standpoint.

“Now we have a chance to move forward.”

UMass will move forward next on Nov. 7, when the Minutemen travel to play nationally-ranked Marshall. The Thundering Herd is currently 5-0 and is ranked 18th in the latest USA Today-Amway Coaches Poll and 19th in the Associated Press Writers Poll.

It is the second of three scheduled games for the 0-1 Minutemen. They will play at Liberty on Saturday, Nov. 28. It was a game on UMass’ original schedule, but was dropped off when UMass had announced it would not play football.

Marshall will come into the Nov. 7 game off an unintentional bye week. Marshall had been scheduled to play at Florida International on Friday night, but FIU had postponed that game because of COVID-19 concerns. FIU said the school had a “lack of available student-athletes,” due to the pandemic and a number of positive tests within the football program.

The Minutemen, meanwhile, returned this past week after taking a week off. UMass’ players had to quarantine for the week after playing at Georgia Southern two weeks ago.

“We produced four negative tests on our way back to the practice field,” Bell said. “We basically had that quarantine, had to suspend football activities for a week, per our campus. We were able to get back out there in earnest a little bit [last] Saturday, but really in earnest on Sunday. It’s been good. The kids were kind of itching to get out of their rooms a little bit, which I can understand. I don’t know how well I would have handled doing that as an 18-to-22 year old.”

The second-year coach said while there was still two weeks before the Marshall game, getting back on the field was really important for the Minutemen.

“We took what very limited work we were able to do Saturday and Sunday and got some good on good, really more than anything else, just knock the rust off after ramping up and quarantining again,” Bell said. “We started to focus a little bit on Marshall on Sunday, but mostly Tuesday. We’re a really young football team, so every rep counts. As young as we are, especially in certain spots, it’s every single day trying to improve with the amount of repetitions, especially in a year where we’ve got very limited repetitions. We’re trying to improve with the amount of reps that you would in a normal year as quickly as possible, while trying to do it safely with some limited bodies.

“But as many reps as possible, so we can continue moving our program forward.”

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6253.

Sportswriter-Columnist

Howard Herman is a sports columnist at The Berkshire Eagle. The dean of full-time sportswriters in Western Mass., he has been with the Eagle since 1988, and is a member of the New England Baseball and Basketball Hall of Fame.