Don Brown provides a jolt of energy to UMass football’s 1st spring practice

  • Don Brown, the new head coach of the University of Massachusetts football program, answers questions during a press conference at his introduction in the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center in Amherst on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Brown was defensive coordinator on the Minutemen's 1998 Division 1-AA national championship team.

Staff Writer
Published: 3/29/2022 7:46:13 PM
Modified: 3/29/2022 7:45:17 PM

AMHERST – Energy defined the first UMass spring football practice of the season Tuesday inside the practice bubble.

Players moved through drills quickly. Those on the sidelines rode exercise bikes or whipped ropes to stay loose. The centerpiece was an 11-on-11 no-huddle drill the staff calls “Thunderstruck.” They play the ACDC song and rip through as many plays as possible in a short amount of time.

“The energy, the shift in energy with coach (Don) Brown and the mentality that he brings, we’re working as a unit,” UMass running back Ellis Merriweather said. “That’s when you were able to see the energy that we want to play with.”

Brown has done just about everything fast since UMass brought him back to lead the Minutemen in late November. He recruited fast and got his staff in place so they could have as much of a head start as possible in Amherst.

Since national signing day in early February, UMass has been able to ‘do football,’ according to Brown. That means familiarizing players with schemes and alignments under a new coaching staff.

“The way the NCAA allowed us to set up our offseason, I feel like it’s given us a fighting chance so the guys have some idea of what we’re doing,” Brown said. “It’s kind of enabled us to hit the ground running, and you don’t feel like you’re a complete mess. There were snaps out there that looked like football snaps and had some juice to it.”

It wasn’t perfect. There were as many bobbled exchanges and fumbled snaps as highlight catches or “touchdowns” (the Minutemen weren’t in full pads and just wore helmets and shells), but that’s what spring practices are for, ironing out kinks and building a foundation for the fall.

UMass rotated through position groups and put different combinations of players together. The staff wanted to see as many players get reps as they could.

“Everybody’s involved. I’m a big believer in that,” Brown said. “Don’t bring guys out to spring practice and don’t give them a chance to compete. That’s just not right. It doesn't help you develop any depth.”

DOGS OF WAR – UMass’ coaching staff underwent a near complete overhaul when Brown took over. Only associate head coach/offensive line coach Alex Miller (who served as UMass’ interim head coach after Walt Bell was fired last season) and analyst Matt Layman remain.

Brown brought in a mix of coaches he either previously worked with or that played at UMass.

Defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski coached with Brown at Arizona and Michigan and was on his staff at UMass the last time Brown was a head coach in Amherst. Offensive coordinator Steve Casula was an offensive analyst at Michigan. Linebackers coach Mike McCray played for the Wolverines under brown.

Associate head coach/special teams coordinator Ben Albert, tight ends coach Jeff Moore and Northampton native Valdamar Brower, the defensive line coach, are former Minutemen.

They’re all teachers of the game that drilled into fundamentals.

“There’s a lot of guys that are familiar with the way I go about doing my business, and I thought that was critical for our success in this situation,” Brown said.

BACK IN BUSINESS – UMass practiced in the indoor practice facility bubble between McGuirk Alumni Stadium and Route 116 with below freezing temperatures early Tuesday morning in Amherst. Merriweather was surprised but grateful he didn’t have to Vaseline his exposed skin to stay warm quite yet.

“It really surprised me. I looked outside, the sun was shining, I thought it was like 60 or 70 degrees, and then I walk outside and it feels like 10. I definitely liked the bubble,” Merriweather said. “I was expecting us to be outside. I’m used to the weather.”

RIDE ON – Tuesday was the first of 15 spring practices culminating in the spring game April 30. The Minutemen will hit the field every Tuesday and Thursday for the next month.

BOOGIE MAN – After practice, Brown made his way over from the bubble to the John Francis Kennedy Champions Center for new men’s basketball coach Frank Martin’s introductory press conference. Both men were at Northeastern in the early 2000s.

“The guy is relentless, great recruiter, tough, but he has that unique ability to be tough and also to have fun. Him and I have nothing but good times in our experiences on Huntington Ave,” Brown said. “He’s a tremendous coach with tremendous energy, and I’m so glad he’s here.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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