University of Massachusetts sophomore wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, left, reaches for a pass in front of sophomore defensive back D'Metrius Williams during the Minutemen's first football practice of the 2013 season Monday, August 5, at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst. KEVIN GUTTING
AMHERST — As the University of Massachusetts football team ran red zone drills, a murmur went through the assembled media watching Monday morning’s practice: “Who is number four?”
The 6-foot-4 receiver had just leapt to make a catch from quarterback Mike Wegzyn and nimbly got his feet down in bounds in the back of the end zone.
The only No. 4 on the roster is cornerback Randall Jette, who was wearing the number in a black jersey on the other side of the field. It’s not unusual for players to wear different numbers in practice from the one they wear in games, but this player wasn’t listed on the roster.
Before it was determined that the mystery receiver was Shakur Nesmith, he’d made another nifty touchdown catch on a corner fade from Wegzyn.
Nesmith is a walk-on, but not in the typical sense. The Philadelphia native, who was ranked as a three-star recruit by 24/7 Sports, was originally headed to Temple last year, but was ruled ineligible. He attended Milford (N.Y.) Academy, which produced UMass career rushing leader Marcel Shipp, for a year. He enrolled at UMass this year in hopes of earning a scholarship in the future.
UMass coach Charley Molnar said that things needed to be sorted out before Nesmith can be ruled eligible. He declined to explain the specifics.
“There’s something we have to work on. But all in all I think he should be good to go. It’s not academics. It’s some other things,” Molnar said. “He’s joined the program as a walk-on. We have other issues we have to make sure to get cleaned up.”
Nesmith won’t be made available for interviews until his eligibility is confirmed. He was running with the first string in place of sophomore Tajae Sharpe, who was out with a shoulder injury.
“He’s taking advantage of Tajae being out. He’s done really well. We didn’t know what to expect. So far so good. He’s making plays up and down the field,” Molnar said. “It’s not just his size. He’s got good speed. He has a really good feel for running routes and finding the open spaces.”
Wide receivers coach Alan Suber said Nesmith wasn’t the only promising rookie receiver, pointing to the early efforts of Shaq Harris and E.J. Burston among others.
“We have some young talented guys trying to find their way in the offense. It’s a complex offense. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but you can see the offense when they do know what they’re doing. They can make plays,” Suber said. “The more they know the offense, the faster they play. The less thinking, the more it’s just natural talent. We’re still looking for big better things from those guys.”
Freshman walk-on receiver Dylan Tighe has looked sharp in practice and has a chance to make an impact. Suber thought the 6-foot, 177-pound Gambrills, Md., product was a steal.
“He’s not a surprise at all. That’s why we took him,” Suber said smiling. “Watch his tape.”
SHARPE INJURY MINOR — Sharpe’s left arm was in a sling following an injury he suffered in Sunday’s practice.
“He just landed the wrong way,” Molnar said. “He’s day-to-day. It’s minor. He’ll be fine. No one is concerned.”
NO CHANGE UNDER CENTER — After one week of practice, Molnar said there’s no change on the quarterback depth chart. Wegzyn continues to work with the first string. A.J. Doyle is No. 2, while true freshman Todd Stafford is third.
“A.J. is never that far behind Wegz,” Molnar said. “I certainly haven’t counted him out of the running. I don’t think A.J. has counted himself out of the running and if Wegz is smart he hasn’t counted A.J. out of the running.”
Molnar likes Stafford’s potential.
“Some days he looks like he’ll be an NFL draft pick when he gets everything right,” Molnar said. “We’re talking to him about his footwork, his drop, the depth of his drop, his first step. We haven’t talked about throwing the ball yet. We talk about repeatable mechanics like golfers do. We’re trying to get them where they can do the same things over and over again. Wegzyn has some really good moments and some under whelming moments. Right now if you watch (Wegzyn) he looks the same over and over again. A.J. is getting to that point. Stafford is a long way away. There’s a lot of inconsistency with his delivery right now.”
MISCELLANEOUS — Wisconsin linebacker Ethan Armstrong, who missed the last two games of 2012 season and all of spring practice with a hip injury and has been out since the second day of preseason with a leg injury, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he plans to be back for the season opener against UMass on Aug. 31.
“I’ll be ready to play in the opener,” Armstrong said after watching practice Monday morning. “It is just a matter of when I’ll be back for practice.”
Armstrong targeted Aug. 21 as a potential return date.
“But obviously that is my own schedule,” he said. “That is not what the doctors or Coach (Gary) Andersen have said. They all have to clear me in order for me to get back. But that is the earliest I’ll be able to come back. That is right when we start UMass prep. I want to make sure I get all of that and I have all that time to prepare myself and be ready for the first game.”