UMass football notebook: Offensive line continuity a strong foundation for Minutemen

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 03-30-2023 3:35 PM

AMHERST – Alex Miller spends most of his time in the corner of the UMass football practice facility.

While the quarterbacks, receivers and backs throw routes and practice handoffs on the playing surface, the offensive line drills to the fundamentals. They squat under cages to stay low, lift medicine balls in their stance to improve explosiveness and mirror each other moving with their hands behind their back.

Miller, now in his third season, is the longest-tenured coach on UMass’ staff, predating even Don Brown’s second arrival. He’s working with a group of largely familiar linemen putting down the foundation for the fall.

“We’ve got to keep working and building but all this is great,” Miller said. “We’ve got to get some some wins in the fall, but we feel like we're laying some bricks right now.”

UMass returned nine offensive linemen from last season. Four of them: Tommy Brandt, Jonny Hassard, Nick Lundeberg and Ethan Mottinger have been in Amherst for three seasons.

“They kind of know what I'm thinking and now they've got to understand that they’ve got to take a little more ownership. It’s not just myself or the rest of the staff or the head coach, like guys that have been here and played with, regardless of the wins or losses, they know what to expect in college football games. Now we kind of need them to blossom into the leadership roles.”

Redshirt junior Cole Garcia stepped front and center into one of those leadership roles when he delivered a speech to the team following Tuesday’s opening practice. The Rice transfer didn’t say much when he arrived last June but put in the effort that attracted his teammates’ respect.

“The first thing he did was he came in and worked, and I think a lot of guys forget that. If you want to earn your peers’ respect, you’ve got to work,” Miller said. “The lost art of working hard is a form of leadership, and it's allowed him to preach a little bit. He's got to understand once you step into that leadership role, guys are going to be scrutinized a little more and you just got to take that ownership.”

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There are 14 offensive linemen on the roster now, and that number will grow once five more arrive for the summer and fall.

“The work that we do now is going to really set us up for the fall,” Miller said. “As you look through the year you think, ‘what can we get better at during spring ball?’”

UMass largely facilitates that improvement through simulating adversity. The Minutemen try to pack in as many repetitions as possible and regularly simulate third down and red zone situations so the players become comfortable in those situations.

“It’s understanding that something's gonna go wrong. It's how you manage it,” Miller said. “To have that mindset and that mentality to deal with the ebbs and flows of practice, that's just as important as playing football is. How you deal with the energy and the emotions that go into playing a whole game and practice the way we do, it puts a lot of pressure on you as a football player to stay locked in the whole time. Once you realize that, your technique becomes a little cleaner, you're more relaxed, but you’ve got to get over that hump of understanding the flows of the practice.”

RIFFS – UMass plays ACDC’s “Thunderstruck” during its first team period, a no-huddle tempo drill that takes its name from the song. The Minutemen hear it two to three times during the drill every day of practice. It doesn’t grate the coach’s ears.

“I'm good with the song. I'm tired of (the Dropkick Murphy’s) ‘Shipping Up To Boston’ for field goals.,” Miller said. “(Thunderstruck) provides a purpose and whether the guys are sick of it or not, it triggers something inside of them.”

PUSH AND PULL – UMass’ defense responded with a stronger Day 2 after the offense regularly ripped long runs or deep bombs during Tuesday’s opening session. That edginess occasionally spills over between the wide receivers and defensive backs after tightly contested throws. They talk, but it’s never more than that.

“Every day you're going against people who really care, truly care about you being better and you getting better on Saturday,” UMass receiver George Johnson III said. “We try to amp it up a little bit, but we don't want to get too carried away because these aren't who we’re going against on Saturdays. Beating them don't matter. Beating another team on Saturday is going to matter.”

UMass’ offense acknowledges it didn’t hold up its end of the bargain in many games last season and wants to support its defense better this fall.

“Our problem right now is when we get up, we’re shaking in our pants. We don’t know what it’s like to be winning. We depended on [the defense] too much to save the games for us,” Johnson said. “As an offense, we’ve got to step up and help them out, too. They did their jobs last year. This year, we’ve got to come together so we can win more games.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>