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Wednesday, May 22, 2013
UMass football tries to drum up enthusiasm

By Jack McCluskey

The spring session completed, University of Massachusetts football coach Charley Molnar can now turn his full attention to recruiting.

But instead of future players, Molnar and the Minutemen are setting their sights on future fans. The school has planned events in the Greater Boston area and Western Mass. through June, hoping to drum up enthusiasm about UMass football at the FBS level headed into Year 2.

Molnar knows it’ll be a hard sell after his program went 1-11 in Year 1 in the Mid-American Conference.

Charley Molnar
Charley Molnar says UMass is far ahead of where it was last year, but still lacks depth in key areas.
“I think we’re light years ahead of where we were a year ago as a football team,” Molnar said by phone Wednesday. “We still have some areas of concern. The biggest thing now is lack of depth at certain positions.”

The head coach pointed to offensive line and wide receiver as two trouble spots. Molnar said he usually likes to have between 12 and 14 wideouts on the roster, with 10 or 11 of those players on scholarship. At the moment, he said, the latter number is more like 7 or 8.

“I can’t create depth overnight,” he said. “We’re going to have to play young players at a lot of positions again this year.”

That includes the O-line, a clear position of need for the Minutemen after they struggled to both run the ball and protect the quarterback consistently in 2012.

“The improvement was good, the depth again is an area of concern,” Molnar said of the offensive line. “You’re talking about an influx of new football players at that position. How many guys are going to be ready to be quality backups remains to be seen.”

The Minutemen haven’t added just players, bringing in four new coaches in the offseason (including the first strength and conditioning coach dedicated solely to football in the school’s history). It’s all geared toward reaching two goals: success on the field and in the stands.

UMass averaged 10,902 fans at its five home games in 2012, down from more than 13,000 in its last FCS season in 2011. Two of the five games at Gillette Stadium drew fewer than 10,000 fans, with a low of 6,385 in the season-closing loss to Central Michigan.

Molnar said people, recruits and fans alike, have been receptive to UMass. And he expects the more than $34 million construction project underway at McGuirk Stadium, upgrading the facility to meet MAC standards and building a new “performance center” to house the football locker room, weight room and coaches offices under one roof, to enhance the Minutemen’s status going forward.

“Right now our facilities would have to rank at the very, very bottom of 1-A football,” he said. “A year from now our facilities will be at the top of mid-major football and better than what many BCS programs have to offer.”

But even with gleaming new digs, there’s no guarantee the product on the field will look a whole lot better in 2013.

“On the inside looking out we could see a lot of signs of progress that fans in the stands couldn’t see,” Molnar said. “The fans only understand wins and losses. … We’ve certainly closed the gap. I wouldn’t say we’ve arrived by any stretch of the imagination.”

When you’re trying to build a program, and a fan base, from the ground up, perspective is important.

“As a fan they’ll look at wins and losses, and so will I,” Molnar said.

But for now, progress will be measured in smaller increments than that.

“Do we turn the ball over less?” the coach said. “Do we have fewer pre-snap fouls? False starts. Illegal formations and substitutions. These are things that go wrong before the ball’s ever snapped. Let’s just get the ball snapped and go from there.”

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