Designated Hitter: UMass football regular season just over a month away

It might be difficult for some of us to believe, but in a little more than a month, the college football season will begin.

Mention that to University of Massachusetts coach Mark Whipple, and you can hear the excitement in his voice.

"We've had a good summer, a real good summer," Whipple said. "They've worked hard."

Whipple was driving back to UMass when we spoke last week. The team's summer practice will begin shortly and the season starts before you know it. In fact, the first game will be Saturday, Aug. 26, when the University of Hawaii visits McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

The coach, who won an NCAA Division I-AA championship during his first UMass stint and was on a Super Bowl champion coaching staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers, said he likes what he's got on the Minuteman roster.

"There's no question [this is the most talented team]," Whipple said he's had since he's been back at UMass. "Last year's team was the most talented, but the schedule was 10 times harder than it was before.

"We played about 15 freshmen, and these guys are now sophomores. We're still a young team, especially on offense where Adam is really the only senior that's a starter."

That is tight end Adam Brenneman, who is on the John Mackey Award and Fred Bilitnikoff Award watch lists. Those trophies go to the best tight end and receiver, respectively, in the nation. Brenneman is on the Biletnikoff list with UMass wide receiver Andy Isabella.

Both of them will be thrown to by quarterback Andrew Ford, who is on the Unitas Golden Arm watch list, for the award given to the nation's top quarterback.

Ford and Brenneman played together at Cedar Cliff High School in suburban Harrisburg, Pa. Brenneman came to UMass after starting his career at Penn State, while Ford came to Amherst from Virginia Tech.

"He's pretty high [on the list]," Whipple said when asked about where he'd put Brenneman on the list of top UMass players. "He's up there with Tajae [Sharpe of the Tennessee Titans]. He's going to be drafted, and a leader. He's a mature guy who has a chance to have a phenomenal year.

"He's bigger and faster now, because he really didn't have a chance to work out before camp [in 2016]. Mentally, he's in a much better place. He's much more confident than when he first came in."

As far as Whipple is concerned, Brenneman is a great target for either of his quarterbacks. Yes, the UMass coach said that both Ford and Ross Comis have starter abilities and both can be No. 1.

"I think it's more we have two starting quarterbacks. It's the best quarterback situation I've ever had at UMass," said the coach. "Ross is a really capable guy. He was a starter last year and unfortunately got hurt during the second half at Tulane. He's coming off knee surgery, and he's looking really good.

"We have two guys that can play. You look every year that you get somebody hurt. That's the nature of the game."

UMass will play three of its first six games at home, a streak that starts with Hawaii, then Old Dominion on Sept. 9 and Ohio on Sept. 30. The schedule includes the Nov. 11 game at Fenway Park against Maine.

"You have a bye after six games, which we haven't had," said Whipple. "With the bye, you kind of break it into two, six-game seasons. Last year, it was 10 that we played and then a bye, and we didn't have one the year before.

"I think it really would have helped us last year. We got some guys nicked after playing all those SEC teams."

The bye comes after a home game against former MAC rival Ohio and before playing a really tough South Florida team.

"Usually, I won't do anything with them in the first three days after the Ohio game," Whipple said. "Just let them be students, and that helps us."

And of the 12 games on the schedule, eight of them are against teams that played in bowl games. Those eight teams went 6-2.

UMass was 3-9, 3-9 and 2-10 in Whipple's first three years in his second stint. There is no doubt that this is going to be a better team. Whether that translates to wins and losses, nobody really knows.

Reach sports columnist Howard Herman at 413-496-6253 or on Twitter @howardherman.


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