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UMass set to open first spring football practice under Mark Whipple

Massachusetts quarterback A.J. Doyle (15) looks down field for a receiver as Akron defensive lineman C.J. James (9) closes in during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013.  Akron defeated Massachusetts 14-10. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Massachusetts quarterback A.J. Doyle (15) looks down field for a receiver as Akron defensive lineman C.J. James (9) closes in during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013. Akron defeated Massachusetts 14-10. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

By MATT VAUTOUR @GazetteUMass
Friday, March 7, 2014
(Published in print: Saturday, March 8, 2014)

When Mark Whipple coached his first spring practice at the University of Massachusetts, the Minutemen played on Dallas Mall, the grassy area between the two driveways that enter McGuirk Stadium. There weren’t uprights, yard markers, nor proper field dimensions, but practicing on or even plowing McGuirk’s grass would have risked damaging the field.

Even Dallas Mall wouldn’t be usable until April.

“The thing I’m happiest about is that we have a turf field and lights,” Whipple said. “I’d be driving past Dallas Mall at this time of year shaking my head.”

Instead, Whipple and his new staff and team will be on McGuirk’s field at 6 p.m. Sunday to begin spring practice.

NCAA rules allow coaches to run conditioning and other nonfootball drills. Whipple was pleased with what he’s seen from his players so far.

“We’ve gotten a lot done. I’ve been happy with the way they’ve worked and I think their attitude has been really good,” Whipple said. “They’ve done whatever we’ve asked. We haven’t seen them play football. We’ve seen them run around and their attitude and what they’ve done conditioning.”

Sophomore A.J. Doyle is returning at quarterback, but will face competition when Whipple’s first recruiting class arrives in the fall. He said he wasn’t looking at the spring as an opportunity to get a head start, just a chance to get back on the field.

“It’s what we’ve been waiting for since the end of the season. We have a lot to get better at. Now we have a new coach. We’re all just excited to get out there,” Doyle said. “To be honest, I just have to go out there and play. Whatever impression I leave on the coach will be determined by how I prepare for practice each day, how I interact with my teammates. I can’t think ‘Oh, I have to do this well because coach is really watching.’ I just have to go out there and play.”

Whipple thought most players would take a similar approach.

“I think they’re just trying to get better. I don’t think their focus is on what’s happening in August,” he said. “My expectations haven’t changed. I expect them to play hard and focused. They’ve done a good job of that.”

Doyle has been watching video of Whipple’s former college and pro quarterbacks, including Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.

“I’ve been watching pass concepts, run concepts and different quarterbacks that he’s worked with. Watching their footwork and getting a feel for what I’m going to be doing,” said Doyle, who thought the returning personnel was well-suited for the system. “There’s a lot of vertical passing but at the same time there’s a great run game behind it. The system he brought in is really suited for the guys we have on campus. It’s on us to go out there and perform better.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage