AMHERST — Matt Sparks knows he’s the first domino.
If the center sets the tone for the offensive line and the offensive line sets the tone for the entire offense, a good year for Sparks as the University of Massachusetts’ No. 1 center means the rest of the unit has a chance to take a step forward.
“It’s pretty important for me to do a lot better this year and improve,” said Sparks, who is motivated by the pressure. “It helps you though all the hard workouts knowing you need to get better every day.”
New UMass offensive line coach Dave Johnson played center himself at West Virginia.
“You have to be strong up the middle. That’s a tough position. I have firsthand knowledge,” he said. “I told him ‘you’re in the unfavorable spot of playing the position your coach played.’ I’m really hard on him. You’re putting the ball between your legs and trying to block and make calls. He has to do a good job. He’s done a really good job with the run, he has to get a little bit better with his pass protection, as does everybody else.”
Sparks, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound native of Hawaii, made three starts as a true freshman last year at left guard. Like most of the Minuteman who debuted last year, he had some growing pains, but he thought it helped prepare him for this year.
“I think it helped a lot. All the young guys that played last year have experience,” he said. “We’ve seen firsthand what we need to prepare for. It’s one thing if someone tells you they’re big and strong, but it’s a lot different if you’re actually out there. It forces you to come out with everything you’ve got. Unless they throw some weird stuff, I think I’m ready for most of it. It just takes repetitions and showing it over and over every day in practice.”
Playing center adds a new list of responsibilities as he’s learning to make the right presnap calls, developing chemistry with quarterback Mike Wegzyn and becoming a leader.
“The center has to be on the same page as the quarterback,” Molnar said. “The quarterback has to tell the center, ‘Hey, I wanted the ball, you were too slow delivering it’ or, ‘You were too fast. Your snaps are off.’ He has to know that Matt is going to take that information and process it rather than be offended by it.”
Wegzyn has been impressed with Sparks’ development.
“He’s come a long way like the whole team has,” he said. “He’s almost a veteran now. Me and him have been through it all together. I feel really good about him going into this season.”
Sparks is taking the leadership responsibility that comes with playing center seriously.
“I think it’s pretty important,” he said. “I have to do my best to set an example for everybody else and just try to provide some energy.”
In the spring, it looked like Sparks would be leading a young and very inexperienced unit. Anthony Dima was the lone senior, and the only player, who’d been in the program the previous spring. But the group has evolved. The return of right guard Vincent Westcarr and the arrival of Rutgers transfer David Osei, who will start at right tackle, gives the Minutemen three seniors on the line. Only redshirt freshman left guard Tyrell Smith has yet to see game action.
Junior college transfer David Bruns and true freshmen Fabian Hoeller and Tyshon Henderson will all add depth.
“Fabian Hoeller is an older freshman. He’s brought some maturity with him. I’m pleased with where he is right now. Tyshon Henderson has some physical maturity, but mentally right now he’s swimming. Hopefully, the game will slow down a little for him, but right now the game goes really fast for him.”