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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
UMass, QB Doyle taking steps

By Jack McCluskey

The phone call went something like this:

A.J. Doyle
UMass QB A.J. Doyle hopes to lead the Minutemen to their first win of the season against Vanderbilt.
“Hello?”

“Hi, do you know who this is?”

“Your voice sounds familiar, but I don’t really know ... ”

“It’s Charley Molnar, the new coach at UMass. I just wanted to let you know that you’re the first recruit I’ve called since taking over, and that our offer still stands.”

That’s how A.J. Doyle, the Minutemen’s new starting quarterback, remembers the call that ultimately led him to switch his commitment and pledge allegiance to the home-state school making the big leap to the FBS level.

Coach and quarterback first met at a camp in South Bend, Ind., when Molnar was still at Notre Dame.

“It was just a lot of fun,” Doyle said of the Notre Dame camp. “I could tell [Molnar] had a great knowledge of the game and was a guy I could learn a lot from.”

“I looked at him and watched him work and I thought he was a [Division] I-A quarterback,” Molnar said in his weekly MAC conference call. “He just wasn't the guy we were looking for at the time where I was. Certainly, it was a name that resonated with me.”

It resonated enough that Molnar followed up that initial call with an in-home visit, sitting down with Doyle and his parents to discuss the future at UMass.

The coach was convincing.

“I just decided it was the right place for me,” said Doyle, who finished his career at Catholic Memorial by throwing for 11 TDs and only two interceptions as a senior in 2011.

The 6-foot-3, 226-pound Lakeville, Mass., resident said UMass had a lot to offer.

“The opportunity to play quarterback,” he said, ticking off a few things. “The opportunity to stay in-state, where I’ve been my entire life. The opportunity to join a program making the move from Division I-AA to I-A.”

It all added up to reconsidering his previous commitment to NC State, which was bringing him in as a linebacker after filling its need at QB.

Molnar is glad he was able to keep Doyle home. He’s been needed, the coach estimating that Doyle played approximately a quarter of UMass’ snaps in 2012, including a start in the season finale. He finished 55-for-97 for 415 yards, three touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games as a true freshman.

“He made progress through the year, but had an injury that hampered him through spring ball and the summer,” Molnar said. “Only over the last several weeks has he been able to hit his stride. He was able to get in shape and throw the football better.”

That, combined with a sputtering offense through the first one and a half games in 2013, led to the coach calling on Doyle at halftime of the loss to Maine in Week 2. He led a late scoring drive against the Black Bears, then got the start against Kansas State in Week 3.

When the Minutemen (0-3, 0-0 MAC) host Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-2 SEC) on Saturday (noon ET on ESPNEWS and WatchESPN), the first time UMass has hosted an SEC opponent, Doyle will be under center again.

Though the stats still are far from pretty, with Doyle finishing the 37-7 loss to K-State 21-for-31 passing for 186 yards and two interceptions (one a pick-six), Molnar believes the offense is taking positive steps.

“We had 17 first downs with pretty good balance, with seven rushing and 10 passing,” Molnar said. “We threw the ball better from an efficiency standpoint.”

The head coach was quick to point out that the two interceptions weren’t all Doyle’s fault.

“Things happen on the field that were beyond his control,” he said. “Obviously at the end of the day, the interceptions go against him, but there were other people involved in those. I feel like we took a step forward at the quarterback position and, all in all, our team is going to be in a good place going forward.”

Doyle’s first turnover was taken back 38 yards for a TD, putting the Minutemen in an early hole on the road in Manhattan, Kan. But the sophomore wasn’t deterred. He led the team on a 46-yard scoring drive to end the first quarter with a 7-6 lead.

Unfortunately, that was the end of the scoring for the UMass offense.

With just 21 points in their first three games, the Minutemen rank dead last nationally (No. 125) in scoring average at 7.0 points per game. They are No. 104 in passing yards per game (166.3) and No. 110 in rushing yards per game (95.67).

Clearly, there is room for improvement.

“I felt like there were some throws that I made that were pretty good,” Doyle said, “but there were a lot of things I can improve upon heading into this Vanderbilt game.”

Things like making his protection checks better, being tighter with his footwork and hitting open receivers more consistently.

“This is all stuff I can work on through the entire week in practice,” Doyle said, “so that when I get in the game I can say, ‘Now I’ve seen this in practice the entire week, here’s what I have to do,’ and just go out and do that.”

Molnar likes to say the Minutemen are pounding at a rock as they continue to work in Year 2 of the transition, and that eventually that rock is going to break.

“I honestly feel we’re just a play away from this exploding where we’re putting up 30, 35, 40 points a game,” Doyle said. “When that rock explodes it’s gonna be a scary thing and we’re gonna be a scary team to play against.”

That day may not arrive this weekend against a Vanderbilt team that has held its own in losses to two teams currently in the Top 25, but the Minutemen believe it’s coming.

Only time will tell if Doyle will lead them there, but Molnar believes he’s just scratched the surface so far.

“The best football for A.J.,” Molnar said, “is in his future.”

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