With a little less than two weeks to go before his team’s first game of the season, and first game at the Football Bowl Subdivision (Division I-A) level, University of Massachusetts coach Charley Molnar was asked a simple question: If you had to play tomorrow, how would you feel about your team’s chances?
“There’s one or two situations that I don’t think we’re quite ready for if we had the game tomorrow,” he said. “If you told me we were playing in 72 hours, I would feel a lot better because I would cover those situations one more time. But I would say that we’re closer to being a competitive football team than we were a week ago.
“And what I mean by that is we’ve continued to make strides during summer camp. We haven’t plateaued. Guys continue to grow and learn each and every day. Eventually you’ll hit a point when you get diminishing returns but we haven’t hit that yet.”
For a team transitioning to a new system, a new conference and a whole new level of competition, that’s important.
Molnar, who spent the past two seasons at Notre Dame as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, likes to run a no-huddle, spread offense and wants to develop a high-pressure, multiple-look defense.
But fans of the Minutemen might have to wait a while to see those ideas in games.
“We’re not going to be a slave to a system. We’ll do what’s best for our football team and if that means running the ball a little bit more, a little bit more balance, then that’ll be the direction that we’ll go,” Molnar said. “Not only this year, [but] every year going forward until we get the personnel in place that can run the system that ideally I would like to have.”
To that end, Molnar said the new Minutemen staff has made progress.
“Recruiting has been upgraded tremendously since we’ve arrived,” the Morristown, N.J., native said.
UMass has 12 commitments for the Class of 2013, including a trio of three-star prospects. Todd Stafford, a pocket passer from Greenwich, Conn., is one of those recruits. He committed to UMass early -- even though he was getting interest from Boston College, UConn and Duke -- pledging to attend in March, just four months after Molnar was named the first head coach in the Minutemen’s FBS history.
The early commitment suggests that the move to the Mid-American Conference, in which UMass will be a football-only member, and FBS will be a draw for the school.
It certainly was a thrill for the players already on the roster.
“The transition from I-AA to I-A has been great for them,” Molnar said. “It’s like waking up and when you didn’t expect it, it’s Christmas. They had heard rumors that UMass wanted to move up to I-A football, but basically they’re I-AA football players and the next day they’re I-A players.”
Now all they have to do is work on being physically ready to play at this level.
“Like many things in our program, that’s a work in progress,” Molnar said of the team’s physical preparedness. “We’re getting into better shape than we’ve ever been. Are we able to just go, go, go for 60 minutes? I would say right now the jury’s out on that.
“We have moments where our guys really play a really fast tempo, run the play, get up, line up and we go again. Other times there’s a lot of delay because guys are slower getting up, they don’t line up as fast, they don’t come off the ball as fast and things don’t look as I would like them to look.”
The fact of the matter is the team may not look the way Molnar wants it to look for a while. Presumptive starting quarterback Kellen Pagel, a redshirt junior, is out indefinitely with continuing post-concussion symptoms. That means that redshirt freshman Mike Wegzyn will call the signals in the opener at UConn (Aug. 30, 7:30 p.m., ESPN3).
True freshman A.J. Doyle, a Lakeville, Mass., native and Catholic Memorial grad, is in line to be the backup.
“He’ll be missed,” Molnar said of Pagel, the one significant injury for UMass entering the season, “but we keep going forward. I think Mike and A.J. are going to be very, very capable replacements for him. I think we’ll be fine with the guys that we have.”
And as the clock ticks down ‘til opening day, you can be sure of this: Molnar’s using that time to cover things one more time, to give his team the best chance to compete in this game and this season of firsts.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.