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Notre Dame Football 2015 Off-Season Preview: UMass Minutemen

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Notre Dame's cupcake comes at a weird time of the season.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

MASSACHUSETTS MINUTEMEN

2014 Record: 3-9

F/+ Rank: 120

Wins: Kent State, Eastern Michigan, Ball State

Losses: Boston College, Colorado, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Bowling Green, Miami (OH), Toledo, Akron, Buffalo

~~~

Season Recap

I didn't do the full research on this but I don't know if any other program started the season with 4 straight Power 5 conference teams like UMass did last year. They gave up a season-high 338 rushing yards to what would turn out to be a strong ground BC attack but followed that up by taking a 31-20 third quarter lead against Colorado before surrendering 3 straight Buffaloes touchdowns. UMass also led Vanderbilt 31-20 in the third quarter and coughed up that game late giving up 2 fourth quarter touchdowns. This stretch culminated in Penn State easily taking care of business in Happy Valley racing out to a 48-0 lead before the Minutemen added a garbage time touchdown.

All was not lost as UMass did notch 3 wins in the MAC which is more than Eastern Michigan, Kent State, and Miami (OH) mustered. Those 3 teams combined played only 5 Power conference teams compared to UMass' 4 on their schedule so all things considered this was a pretty strong campaign for the Minutemen. They made the jump to I-A for 2012 and went 2-22 overall, never winning more than 1 game in the MAC in either season. So this was progress.

Series: First Game

The game was scheduled back when former Notre Dame assistant Charley Molnar was the head coach at UMass, causing the worst of Irish fans to bemoan the decision as the worst thing to have ever befallen this once proud program. A couple years later, Molnar's disaster of a tenure is long gone and new head coach Mark Whipple actually has the Minutemen looking something more than one of the dregs of college football.

Coach Resume: Mark Whipple (3-9, 2nd Year, 124-68 Overall)

This is actually Whipple's second stint in Amherst and he's among the most accomplished college coaches you've probably never heard of before. He kicked around the lower levels of college ball for several years prior to taking over the head coaching job at D-2 New Haven. He'd go 48-17 over 6 seasons there and moved on to the Ivy League with Brown for 4 seasons going 24-16.

To begin the 1998 season, Whipple signed up for the head gig at then I-AA UMass and would have a very successful 49-26 run for 6 years--winning the National Championship in his first year while taking a team from 2-9 to 12 wins.

From there, he developed Ben Roethlisberger for 3 seasons as the quarterback coach for the Steelers--winning a Super Bowl in 2005. Whipple was an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles for a season in 2008 before taking the OC position for the Miami Hurricanes for two seasons. Prior to taking the UMass job for a second time he was the quarterbacks coach for the Cleveland Browns from 2011-12.

Returning Starters: 19 Total (10 offense, 9 defense)

You can expect to see UMass littered all over Phil Steele's Most Improved for 2015 lists. With this many returning starters they should be much more competitive in the MAC.

Linemen Situation: Very Good

Redshirt junior left tackle Tyrell Smith, junior left guard Fabian Hoeller, and redshirt sophomore right tackle Elijah Wilkinson all started every game last year and return for 2015.

Senior Matt Sparks made 10 starts at center and returns. Fifth-year senior right guard Josh Bruns made 8 starts (the last two at center) and redshirt junior Michael Boland started the final 6 games at right guard.

Nose tackle Daniel Maynes is the only major loss up front on the defensive line. He made 10 starts with 7.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks. The other 5 main contributors all return giving the Minutemen a nice core to work with in 2015.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

When doing an early ranking of the 2015 opponents back in December I mistakenly said that Blake Frohnapfel was leaving UMass. However, he graduated from Marshall in 3 years, took a redshirt his first year in Huntington, and thus had 2 years of eligibility upon arriving at UMass.

Frohnapfel is big (6-6, 229) and actually had a very nice season in 2014 with 3,345 yards and 23 touchdown passes to just 10 interceptions in just 10 games--finding a groove over his last 6 contests averaging 410 yards per game and earning first team All-MAC. He missed the final 2 games with an injury as son-of-the-coach Austin Whipple filled in and the offense fell off a cliff.

Biggest Problem for 2015: Finding a Running Game

You could easily say the defense here, and the pass defense specifically, but a lower ranked team like UMass isn't likely to build it's resume off a super improved defense.

The UMass run game had its moments but was generally quite poor, rushing for 0 touchdowns in 4 games and scoring just 1 touchdown apiece in 4 others. Their pass heavy scheme might not make this much of a priority but some legit balance and productivity among the running backs could do wonders for this team.

Biggest Strength for 2015: Continuity in the Passing Game

The All-MAC quarterback returns, as do 5 out of the top 6 pass catchers. With the top 7 players on the offensive line this is exciting news in Amherst.

It better be because with Frohnapfel starting the Minutemen averaged almost 44 pass attempts per game. Only East Carolina's Shane Carden and Washington State's Connor Halliday averaged more tosses last season.

Offensive Scheme: Pro-Style

Whipple's credentials as a pro-style coordinator are solid and while he has the quarterback winging the ball all over the place the offense stays under center quite often and utilizes multiple tight ends and fullbacks with regularity. But he's no heathen, there's still plenty of shotgun, spreading the field, and especially using several different sweep motions.

4 Players to Remember

WR Tajae Sharpe, Sr.- Explosive big-bodied (6-4) target who caught more than twice the passes as anyone else on the roster in 2014. Finished last fall with 85 receptions, 1,281 yards, and 7 scores.

TE Rodney Mills, Sr.- UMass lost top tight end Jean Sifrin early to the NFL (he's 27 and went undrafted) but Rodney Mills is no joke hauling in 30 passes for 489 yards and 5 touchdowns.

LB Jovan Santos-Knox, Sr.- The inside linebacker finished 5th nationally in total tackles (143) while also chipping in 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. That earned Santos-Knox first team All-MAC honors.

LB Shane Huber, RS So.- He played as a true freshman making 5 starts but a knee injury suffered in the middle of that season kept him out all of 2014. Huber is back and impressed during the spring. Most expect him to fill in for the departed Stanley Andre (128 tackles, 3.5 TFL) to team up with Santos-Knox in the middle.

Special Teams: 3/4

Punter Brian McDonald needs to be replaced while the plackicking duties are a toss up after 3 players made attempts last year and incoming freshman Michael Caggiano enters the mix.

Safety Trey Dudley-Giles was the primary punt returner and is back, and safety Khary Bailey-Smith returns as the kick returner.

Uniforms: 2/10

UMass1

Matthew O'Haren, USA Today Sports

UMass' uniforms are so drab and nondescript that even I can't talk about them. I mean, get some pants stripes up in there or something damn. A rifle on the helmet would be an easy fix.

What's To Like About the Matchup?

This is likely Notre Dame's easiest game of the season. UMass has been a terrible road team. Small sample size but no wins over Power 5 teams since jumping to FBS. Might be the worst defense faced of the Kelly era.

What's Not To Like About the Matchup?

Terribly placed 'cupcake' game. The Irish could be reeling and/or injured from triple option Georgia Tech the week prior. There could be some rust going from run-heavy Tech to pass-happy UMass. Easy to overlook the Minutemen with Clemson the next week.

Opponent Power Ranking Based on Irish Schedule: 12th Toughest

As you can see at the top of this article, UMass finished 120th in the final F/+ combined rankings last year. Since 2010, Notre Dame has played 2 teams who finished in the 100's at the end of the season: Air Force (113th in 2013) and Wake Forest (104th in 2012). The Irish won those games by a combined 83-10. A couple other opponents were close to the 100's in Rice (86th in 2014) and Temple (98th in 2013).

With a ton of returning starters all over the roster and a smart, veteran quarterback under center it's possible UMass makes a jump out of the 100's and moves up a couple spots in the MAC. I don't know if I'd predict it but a game similar to Temple (28-6, never felt like a blowout) a couple years ago wouldn't surprise me, especially given where this UMass contest falls on the schedule.

The issue for UMass is that their defense was so bad last year that even decent improvement might lead to a still crappy unit in 2015. They were 121st in FEI defense, 115th in S&P defense, 105th in scoring defense, 92nd in rushing defense, 102nd in pass defense, 85th in yards per play given up, 116th in sacks, 93rd in tackles for loss, and 94th in turnovers created. Just about every defensive stat out there had UMass outside the Top 80.

To put things into perspective, Penn State had one of its worst offenses in school last year and was able to score 48 points relatively easily against UMass.

I think the Minutemen will be scrappy on offense. They desperately need some more dynamic play from the running game, though. Last year they mustered only 5 rush plays of 20+ yards which was fourth to last nationally. I don't know if its ideal for Whipple's offense to throw the ball 60 times against Notre Dame, but it could be fun to watch.