Starting QB spot for UMass football still up for grabs

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AMHERST — If there has been one overriding question facing Walt Bell in his first year as the head football coach at the University of Massachusetts, it is this:

"Who's going to be your quarterback?"

Bell has a ready answer for that question.

"When we're good and ready," he said after Wednesday's practice. "I'm going to give you the canned answer from yesterday."

There are eight quarterbacks listed on the UMass preseason roster, but only one of them has thrown a pass in a regular-season game. That would be Michael Curtis, who played in six games last year and started once.

The battle to be the opening night quarterback has fallen to three players: Curtis, Randall West and Andrew Brito. Curtis and West are redshirt seniors while Brito is a junior, who transferred in from the College of the Canyons — a junior college — for the fall.

"No doubt," said Curtis, when asked if it's been a pitched battle for the No. 1 job. "But that's what you want. You never want to go in this and it be a landslide. You want everybody at their competitive best, and everybody to give each other a run for their money. At the end of the day, whoever does take the field, you want them to be as sharp as they possibly can be."

Bell, quarterbacks coach Angelo Mirando and the staff have until Friday's 7:15 p.m. kickoff at Rutgers to really make a decision on a starter.

The three "front runners" have thrown 40 passes in Division I-FBS football games between them. Curtis threw them all last year. He was 26 of 40 for 412 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions, while playing when Andrew Ford and Ross Comis were both injured.

Curtis' one start came last Sept. 22, in a 49-31 win over Charlotte. He was 12-of-19 passing for 189 yards and two touchdowns. He also carried the ball nine times for 40 yards.

"To me, if you've got two or three, that means you don't have one," Bell said at the start of training camp, when asked about using multiple quarterbacks.

"We have to get to the point where there's somebody that not only myself, but way more important than me and the staff, that the guys around them believe in," Bell said. "That's typically what happens. Coaches don't typically choose the starting quarterback. The other 10 guys in the huddle do."

Ask any of the three at the current top of the depth chart, and they'll tell you that Bell, Mirando, and the rest of the staff are giving everyone a fair chance at the starting job.

"It's not my job to figure out those things, but they are on that and make sure that everybody's involved and everybody's getting their looks," West said. "The goal is to see who they can trust and who they're trotting out on Aug. 30, if they trust their hands, because you have the ball most of the time. You have to be able to trust them with your staff's jobs, with your players. It's such an integral position in sports."

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Curtis might have more game experience than either West or Brito, but none of that was with the offense that Bell has installed.

"You have to understand, everybody was kind of new to this offense," he said. "No one was returning or had played in this offense for many years or anything like that. I think everyone's been learning at an equal pace and learning it together. I think that's what now kind of shows in practice as far as our decision-making and our choices with the ball. That's a lot different than Day One of camp."

This is a different camp for West, who hadn't really been in the quarterback mix during his time at UMass. In fact, he probably got more playing time with Matt McCall's basketball team than he has on the football field. However, the Moorestown, N.J., native said that he came to camp with the same attitude as always.

"Obviously, I'm going to have a shot to win the job. It's an open competition," he said. "But the mindset doesn't change. Even when I was a freshman and Blake Frohnapfel was the starter, you still want to play well, you still want to get the game plan and execute whatever play they call to the best of your ability. There might be a little more pressure considering, but that really doesn't factor into it. What I'm thinking about when I'm on the field is what play has Coach called, what's my job, and how can I do my job to the best of my ability to put the team in a better place."

The newest member of the quarterbacks club is Brito, who played at the College of the Canyons in California. Like West, Brito is from New Jersey, having played his high school football at Paramus Catholic.

"It's definitely come at me very fast," Brito said when asked about adapting to D-I football and Bell's playbook. "You have a choice to get on the bus or get off, get on the train or get off the train, because this train is going in the right direction. I just try to work every day to do what the coaches ask me to do. If I do that every day, I can get on the train with the rest of the guys."

Brito was a top-100 recruit out of high school in New Jersey. Last year, he helped College of the Canyons finish 10-1, throwing for 1,092 yards and nine touchdowns.

Each of the three quarterbacks concur that everyone is getting a fair shot at being the starter for the Rutgers game.

For his part, the newest member of the QB Club said he's been accepted by the others.

"I love being in that quarterback room," Brito said. "Between the quarterbacks and Coach Mirando, you can't not have fun in there. Yeah, we're talking ball the whole time, sometimes you get off track. Football's about having fun, and I wouldn't want to be in another QB room without these guys.

"I'm really grateful for all of them, and especially for them taking me in."

Back to the question of the day, week or month.

"The No. 1 rule of decision making is use all the time allotted," Bell said. "If it takes us to within the bus ride over to the Rutgers game, we'll take that long. Whenever we're ready, we're ready.

"Obviously, we'd like to know sooner rather than later, but when we're ready, we're ready."

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


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