UMass football gears up for the 2017 season

AMHERST — University of Massachusetts football coach Mark Whipple gave a little smile in response to a question about how his team is doing with just over two weeks before the season opener.

"You're better at math than I am," he said. "I don't even know what day it is."

The Minutemen are in the middle of summer practice, as they prepare for the season opener on Saturday, Aug. 26, against Hawaii at McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

"I think we had a two days" at the start of the week, Whipple said on Wednesday. "There was a little heat. I thought we got better.

"I thought we were a lot more physical since I've been here, on both sides. We have some nicks and bumps and bruises, but we got out of [Wednesday] all right."

The Hawaii game kicks off at 6 p.m., and is one of three home games the Minutemen will play in the first five weeks of the season. UMass will host Old Dominion on Sept. 9 and former Mid-American Conference foe Ohio on Sept. 30.

UMass has a pair of Power-5 Conference road games at Tennessee on Sept. 23, and at Mississippi State on Nov. 4.

"It seems like yesterday that we were 100 days away during spring ball," linebacker Steve Casali said after practice on Wednesday. "We're ready. We can't wait for that [first game]."

As of Saturday, that first game is two weeks away. The Minutemen get to play an early game because of Hawaii's travel situation.

Hawaii was also where the Minutemen ended their 2-10 season last year, dropping a 46-40 game to the Rainbow Warriors. It's that final loss, along with the tough 2016 season that has the 2017 UMass players excited to get going.

"We couldn't be more excited about the opportunity. We know Hawaii is a great team. We have a lot of work ahead of us," quarterback Andrew Ford said. "It's exciting to know that all of the work you're going to put in is going to be rewarded soon."

Whipple is in his 10th season as part of his second term at UMass. While the team was 2-10 last year, the Minutemen return seven offensive and eight defensive starters.

Ford started most of the season after Ross Comis suffered an injury that kept him off the field. Ford completed 222 of 365 for 2,665 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

The Minutemen have every major offensive category leader from Ford to running back Marquis Young to receivers Adam Breneman and Andy Isabella.

Ford was a highly recruited quarterback out of Camp Hill, Pa., where he was a high school teammate of Breneman. Ford is on the Unitas Golden Arm Award watch list, the award given to the top quarterback. Breneman is on the John Mackey watch list as the top tight end and the Fred Biletnikoff Award list as the top receiver.

For Whipple, it's the daily improvement that he has noticed and has enjoyed seeing.

"They're here all summer. Coach [Joe] Connolly's second year in the strength program. He knows the guys. There's just been more leadership from the senior class," said Whipple. "They've been around. The expectations are high."

Casali, a redshirt senior from Long Island, is one of those leaders. He said he realizes what happened last year, and what could make this year's team different.

"The thing with last season is we didn't make plays when the opportunity presented itself," said Casali, last season's leading tackler. "During the summer we really matured. I feel like when those plays present themselves again, I feel like we'll make those plays and win more games because of that."

Reach sportswriter Howard Herman at 413-496-6253, on Twitter @howardherman


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