Over the next couple of weeks, Inside the Gators will take an early look at the Florida Gators football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we begin with a preview of UMass, the Gators' first opponent of their 2016 campaign.
Florida Gators vs. UMass Minutemen
Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla.
Sept. 3, 2016, 7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network
UMass head coach: Mark Whipple (3rd season)
Coordinators: Spencer Whipple (passing game coordinator; 2nd season in role, 3rd on staff), Tom Masella (defensive coordinator, 3rd season)
UMass 2015 record – 3-9 (2-6 Mid-American Conference): 2015 was the final season in the MAC for UMass, which is now an independent. Last year didn't go so well for Whipple's group, as the Minutemen started the season 0-3 and then after a win over FIU dropped five consecutive contests.
2015 offensive stats: 65th nationally in total offense (399.8 YPG), 108th in scoring offense (22.2 PPG), 37th in passing offense (257.5 YPG), 103rd in rushing offense (142.3 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 104th nationally in total defense (447.8 YPG), 92nd in scoring defense (31.4 PPG), 37th in passing defense (254.9 YPG), 94th in rushing defense (192.9 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Ross Comis (171 yards, 2 TD on 15-of-21 passing): With last year's starter, Blake Frohnapfel, graduating, Comis will compete against JUCO transfer and former Virginia Tech signee Andrew Ford for the starting job during fall training camp.
Returning leading rusher – RB Marquis Young (960 yards, 7 TD on 152 carries): After a strong freshman season and now a handful of contributors on offense graduating, Young will be counted on to produce in 2016.
Returning leading receiver – WR Shakur Nesmith (204 yards, 3 TD on 15 catches): The Minutemen lose three of their top receiving options from a year ago, including standout wide receiver Tajae Sharpe (who recorded 1,319 yards and five touchdowns on 111 catches a year ago), tight end Rodney Mills and wideout Marken Michel.
Returning leading tackler – LB Shane Huber (95 tackles, 2.5 TFL): UMass lost an array of starters on the defensive side of the ball to graduation, including linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, who finished 2015 with an impressive 131 tackles, 9 TFL and 3.5 sacks.
Returning leaders in interceptions – LB Da'Sean Downey and S Khary Bailey-Smith (one each): Massachusetts was tied for fourth in the MAC last season with 13 interceptions but loses a handful of key pieces in the secondary including Randall Jette, Trey Dudley-Giles and Joe Colton.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY DANIEL MALONE OF MASSLIVE.COM
What was the biggest thing about this UMass team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
DM: The big takeaway was just the sheer number of new and inexperienced players taking over a team that lost over two dozen seniors — many starters and major contributors — from a year ago. Key pieces like Tajae Sharpe and Blake Frohnapfel aren’t around anymore to steady the offense and the defense is having to replace basically its entire secondary plus a couple linebackers and a nose tackle. It’ll be all about new faces and how well they can replace production for UMass in 2016.
What are the three biggest storylines to follow this season?
DM: At the top of the list is the quarterback situation, which is in flux after a couple strong seasons from Frohnapfel. Last year’s backup Ross Comis handled spring work, but it’s expected that JUCO transfer (and former Virginia Tech signee) Andrew Ford will be the guy under center come September. The development of sophomore running back Marquis Young, who ran for nearly 1,000 yards last year and capped his rookie season with 240 yards and three touchdowns in the finale will be important, too. Lastly, this will be the first season of conference independence for UMass, which should cast a feeling of uncertainty over everything else.
What are UMass’ greatest strengths?
DM: That’s a good question. It’s possible we won’t know until the season really gets underway. Young is clearly the most talented player on the team. He took things to another level in limited work against MAC schools and looked right at home against Notre Dame last year. He could be really special and will have to carry the load on offense.
What are the Minutemen’s greatest weaknesses?
DM: Pretty much everything else. The question mark at quarterback is a big deal, as is the lack of proven receiving options for whoever wins that job. Plus, the offensive line lost its two most reliable, veteran starters at center and left tackle. Defensively, the secondary could be in position to get torched as it brings a number of talented, but young new faces up to speed.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for UMass?
DM: It’ll be an uphill struggle for most of the year. The massive drop off in proven talent from last year paired with what will be the toughest schedule in program history — UMass is single-handedly trying to start up the SEC North, it looks like — figures to make the 2016 season a long one for the Minutemen and their fans.
You can follow Daniel Malone on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.
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Sept. 10 vs. Kentucky
Sept. 17 vs. North Texas
Sept. 24 at Tennessee
Oct. 1 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 8 vs. LSU
Oct. 15 vs. Missouri
Oct. 29 vs. Georgia (neutral site)
Nov. 5 at Arkansas
Nov. 12 vs. South Carolina
Nov. 19 vs. Presbyterian
Nov. 26 at Florida State
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