UMass' new QB embracing the challenge

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
1:20
PM ET
The quarterback with the easier-than-it-looks name made a harder-than-it-looks decision, and Mark Whipple is glad he did.

Blake Frohnapfel -- that’s pronounced FROH-nap-ul -- decided to transfer to Massachusetts after a visit in the first week of February. And when a visitor joked that it must’ve been the Amherst-in-winter weather that sold him, the 6-foot-6, 229-pounder joked right back. He was leaving Marshall in the mountains of West Virginia, not exactly Miami Beach.

But, he’s quick to add, just because the weather can be equally dismal in Huntington and Amherst doesn’t mean it was easy to leave the former for the latter.

“I have a lot of close bonds with people at Marshall,” Frohnapfel said.

[+] EnlargeMark Whipple
John Bohn/Getty ImagesUMass head coach Mark Whipple hopes Frohnapfel and a bolstered receiving corps can improve on the team's dismal 2013 passing numbers.
With the Thundering Herd, he got to play alongside his twin brother, Eric (a 6-foot-7 wideout). His sister was a graduate assistant for the athletic department. He had a lot of family in the area. And though he’s graduated, his girlfriend is still in school there.

“Leaving that was hard for me,” he said, “but I knew, kinda at a personal level that it was probably best for me to leave Marshall and help myself branch out and expand and come to the northeast, which is a place I’ve never really been before.”

Whipple has been here before. Shortly after starting his second go-around as the UMass coach (though this is his first season with the program at the FBS level), the 57-year-old set about trying to add talent to a roster that had gone 1-11 in each of the previous two seasons.

When he heard through a coaching connection that Frohnapfel was looking for a place to play (while earning his MBA), Whipple was intrigued. He liked what he heard from people at Marshall about Frohnapfel’s drive and leadership ability, not to mention his skill set.

In two years as a backup, the Stafford, Va., native went 35-for-45 for 386 yards, five TDs and two interceptions. He also rushed 24 times for 164 yards and two TDs, much of the yardage coming on long runs of 45 and 51 yards.

Though his numbers in limited action were good, Frohnapfel knew he wouldn’t see the field with Rakeem Cato -- who ESPN Insider Brock Huard called one of the nation’s 10 best QBs for 2014, and who others have called a dark-horse Heisman candidate -- back for his senior season.

So he put together a list of schools with potential opportunities at QB and a good business program, and UMass happened to be on it. Frohnapfel liked what he saw on his visit -- despite the winter’s chill -- and felt at home, so he committed.

“It’s been great,” he said of the experience so far. “The team unity has been great. They really just accepted me. Everyone was trying to help me out, ‘Hey, Froh, we’re going to do this, come hang out with us.’ Even that first week when I didn’t really know anybody ...

“My roommates have been great, giving me rides to places -- because I don’t know where it is.”

Comments like that and his Twitter handle (@FrostedBlakes15) and bio -- “Isenberg School of Management MBA/MS student. Marshall University grad. Your mom's favorite player.” -- show off his easygoing sense of humor.

“He’s real cool,” wideout Tajae Sharpe said. “He’s kinda a laidback person. He’s very funny, too, once you get to know him ... and he studies the game a lot in his off time, so that’s also a big plus.”

Frohnapfel was named the starter at QB after a camp battle with A.J. Doyle and UMass’ other signal-callers. Though Whipple praised Doyle’s play, as well, he said the newcomer made a few more throws and a few more good decisions.

The Minutemen certainly could use a boost at the position, after Doyle and former QB Mike Wegzyn combined to go 177-for-336 passing for 1,877 yards, nine TDs and 18 interceptions in 2013. UMass ranked No. 113 nationally with 156.4 passing yards per game and tied for No. 120 at 5.5 yards per attempt.

At Marshall, Frohnapfel averaged 7.8 yards per attempt in 2012 and 9.4 yards per attempt in 2013.

The coaching staff hopes Frohnapfel and a bolstered receiving corps that includes Sharpe, redshirt junior Markel Michel and Penn State transfer Alex Kenney, among others, can improve on the team’s passing numbers in 2014.

“We’re working on getting to know [Frohnapfel] better,” Whipple said, “so things he likes to do and feels comfortable with we’ll work those in, some of the things we’re trying to teach him.”

“As soon as I met him, he wanted to get on the field and start throwing the ball, get our timing and everything down like that,” Sharpe said. “As a quarterback you have to be a leader and a communicator, and he’s definitely done a good job with that.”

The biggest adjustment hasn’t been finding his way around Amherst or fitting into the team culture at McGuirk; it's been taking the snap from under center in Whipple’s pro style offense after a career spent mostly in shotgun formations.

So Frohnapfel’s gotten to know center Matt Sparks -- who happens to be one of his three roommates, along with two other offensive linemen -- very well.

“Oh yeah, we’re just in the living room, running through full plays, moving the coaches around,” Frohnapfel said with a laugh. “It’s a good time.”

The Minutemen and their supporters hope that, with Whipple back in charge of the offense and Frohnapfel now under center, the good times are just beginning.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.

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