UMass football opens fall camp in sweltering July

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff writer

Published: 07-28-2023 7:16 PM

Friday dawned bright and hot without a cloud in the sky, and UMass football coach Don Brown was ecstatic to see the weather forecast. With the first game of the season at New Mexico State, Brown wants his team used to playing in high temps.

“It was a Las Cruces day, because we were able to practice in the heat,” Brown said. “The weather report for the next week it looks like it’s going to cool off pretty good, so we’ll take as many of these kinds of days as we can get to get our work in.”

Their first game against New Mexico State will be in Las Cruces on Saturday, August 26 at 9 p.m. It’s an early start to the schedule for the Minutemen in Week 0, and their schedule will stretch all the way to the final week of the regular season.

“Coaching in July is a different sphere. But the interesting thing is we’ll play our first game the 26th and then we’ll play the last week of the regular season too, because we’ll have two byes,” Brown said.

But they aren’t looking that far ahead just yet. Friday was the first time players had gotten back on the field together since spring training, and there are a number of new players on the roster, whether they transferred or just joined the team as freshmen. As expected, everyone was still getting used to being back on the practice field.

“I felt a lot of energy. I mean, not gonna lie to you, we had a lot of rust today. First day as usual, so we had a knock off the rust,” receiver George Johnson III said. “But we had intensity and enthusiasm from the jump. We didn’t question that, we just probably question just our execution of a few things, but just the excitement, the enthusiasm and the energy was all there.”

Brown recognizes that there will be rust and is giving his players time to adjust to the learning curve before making any starting lineup decisions. As players adjust to being back on campus and the grind of the season, Brown and his coaching staff will keep their options opent, though they expect to have a decision about who the starting quarterback will be before their first game week; that decision will likely be made over the next couple of weeks.

“Bottom line is prior to us getting to game plan, we’ve got to make some decisions, but I’m a big believer (in) let them all compete as long as possible,” Brown said. “Because some guys, all of a sudden they just wake up one morning and all of a sudden they know the concepts, they understand what’s going on and the light goes off. You don’t want to shut that out, shut the light off on that kind of guy. But at the same time, you’ve only got so many days to game plan and prepare for the game.”

OLDER AND WISER

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Last year’s UMass squad was one of the youngest in the FBS, something that Brown wanted to address during the offseason. Maturity was a key talking point Brown mentioned after Day 1 of practice.

“The mistake I made a year ago and I take full (responsibility) – when we were picking from the portal, we didn’t care if they were old, young, whatever. We just took the best players we could find and put them on our roster. I think that lack of maturity ended up hurting us,” Brown said. “Whereas this year in this particular group, we paid attention to how many guys had played two and three years so they could come in here and lend some leadership ability to our guys as well.”

One of those players is George Johnson III, a redshirt junior who’s stepping into one of the captain roles this season. Johnson was with the Michigan football program for three years before joining the Minutemen, and he’s learned a lot about showing up consistently to practice with a positive attitude as well as taking care of his body off the field.

“I’m always a happy, smiley dude, but I had a problem last year and at Michigan, one day I’d be smiling and the next I (wouldn’t). My coaches told me you got to be the same person each and every day,” Johnson said. “Even if you’re having a bad day, part of being a leader is being that same person and taking this crew and they follow behind you, and everything they say before practice it starts with you. So just as a captain and as a leader, for this group, I have to show up each and every day.”

ALL SYSTEMS GO FOR WOODEN

Several players stood out for Brown in the first day of practice, but one player he took time to highlight was Billy Wooden. Last year he was a solid player for UMass, suiting up in nine games and recording 36 tackles and one forced fumble. Brown was impressed at how healthy Wooden looks early on this year.

“The good thing about Billy (Wooden) is I thought the guy we got last year looked like a guy that had an ACL tear, had it repaired and was in his first year. He doesn’t look that way anymore,” Brown said. “He looks like a guy that’s fully recovered from an ACL tear and ready to play ball. So that’s a good thing.”

BACK IN PADS

Brown told media that the plan is to have players in pads for the first time on Monday. The team will practice again on Saturday and take Sunday as an off day to start getting used to taking Sundays off during the football season, and the group plans to be in pads during Monday’s practice.

Hannah Bevis can be reached at hbevis@gazettenet.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Bevis1.

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