UMass Football Preview: Return of Don Brown Ignites Minutemen in 2022

UMass Football Preview: Return of Don Brown Ignites Minutemen in 2022

Don Brown led UMass to a national title game in 2006. He returns looking to take the Minutemen to unprecedented heights in FBS.

Aug 11, 2022 by Kyle Kensing
UMass Football Preview: Return of Don Brown Ignites Minutemen in 2022

Don Brown knows how to win in New England. 

As head coach at Plymouth State, he went 25-6 with a pair of perfect regular-season finishes and NCAA Div. III playoff appearances. At Northeastern, he led the Huskies to their only Div. I-AA Playoffs in program history at the conclusion of a 10-win 2002 season. 

And in his five years at UMass, the Minutemen finished above .500 each season with a pair of double-digit-win campaigns and trip to the 2006 National Championship Game. 

Brown spent the previous decade-and-change coordinating defenses at the FBS level. Earning a reputation as Dr. Blitz, Brown's aggressive style on the field and his engaging personality off it shined. 

He brings a fire that UMass hopes can again ignite the Minutemen football program. 

2021 Season Review 

The move to FBS has proven challenging for UMass, and the 2021 season ranks among the most trying of the Minutemen's time in the subdivision. UMass reached a high midway through the campaign with a 27-13 defeat of regional rival UConn — an opponent the Minutemen see this year on Nov. 4 — but otherwise lost 11 games by double-digit-point margins. 

UMass ranked No. 126 in scoring offense at 16.6 points per game and last in scoring defense at 43.1 points allowed per. A positive to take from the Minutemen's rocky 2021, however, is the bevy of underclassmen who played significant snaps. 

The team leaders across the vast majority of statistical categories were freshmen, sophomores or juniors. 


Ellis Merriweather emerged as a breakout star for the Minutemen a season ago, rushing for 1,138 yards on 218 carries — a healthy 5.2 per-attempt clip — and scored five touchdowns. A big back in the vein of Eric Dickerson, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Merriweather has the frame to take on a heavy workload without compromising speed. 

He doubles as a dependable pass-catcher. Given how effectively running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum were used as receivers out of the backfield last season at Michigan — where new UMass offensive coordinator Steve Casula worked — expect to see Merriweather remain an important part of the passing attack. 

Merriweather was one of three leading receivers for UMass a season ago back for 2022. Wide receiver Rico Arnold and tight end Josiah Johnson were the only Minutemen with multiple touchdown grabs, each at three. Both return for 2022. 

Who will be throwing the passes to that corps looms as one of the primary questions ahead of Week 1 at Tulane. 

Brady Olson passed for eight touchdowns and 1,145 yards in nine appearances last season, but completed less than 49 percent of his attempts. Garrett Dzuro threw three interceptions in his 23 attempts, and Zamar Wise was limited to just nine total throws, but both added an element to the rushing attack with their mobility. 

Brown told reporters at UMass media day that the Minutemen could explore a two-quarterback solution. That's another wrinkle that worked for the Michigan staff on which Casula coached, with the Wolverines mixing the more traditional passer Cade McNamara and the explosive ball-carrier J.J. McCarthy. 

What's more, Casula came to Michigan from Ferris State; one of the most effective option-based offensive teams at any level of college football. The option to go option is in the new coordinator's repertoire. 


A coach doesn't get the nickname Dr. Blitz by dropping eight into coverage. UMass totaled just 11 sacks in 2021, fewer than all but USF and Vanderbilt around FBS. However, Brown's last stop demonstrated his ability to quickly engineer a turnaround with the pass-rush. 

Arizona ranked No. 111 nationally in sacks at season's end 2019. In 2020, the Wildcats were dead-last. One year of Dr. Blitz's prescription saw the Wildcats register nearly two per game, and a five total sack improvement from the last full season. And Brown worked with considerably fewer returning starters in his one season at Arizona than he and defensive coordinator Keith Dudzinski — who coached with Brown at Michigan and UA — will oversee at UMass. 

Linebackers Gerrell Johnson and Da'Shon Ross led the Minutemen in tackles and each recorded a sack, while space-eating defensive tackle Billy Wooden (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) got into the backfield for eight tackles-for-loss. 

Opposing offensive lines won't just have Wooden to account for up front, either. Florida State transfer Marcus Cushnie recorded 1.5 sacks in limited action for the Seminoles (coincidentally, recording those numbers against the Minutemen) and posted seven sacks at Alabama A&M. 

With effective rushing presences on the interior with Wooden and at end with Cushnie, UMass should see a significant uptick in sack production. Meanwhile, an experienced secondary that returns Josh Wallace (12 passes broken-up in 2021), Donte Lindsay (four break-ups, an interception) and Te'Rai Powell (four tackles for loss, 56 total tackles) will have more opportunities to make plays. 

Game to Watch: vs. Liberty, Oct. 8 

Fellow independent Liberty has been a regular opponent for UMass since 2018. The Minutemen won the first encounter in a 62-59 instant classic, but have dropped the last three while surrendering an average of almost 57 points per game. 

Hugh Freeze has been the Flames' head coach for each of those three meetings, and his presence transformed Liberty into one of the most prolific offensive teams in the nation. The Flames ranked No. 25 in scoring offense a season ago behind NFL draft pick quarterback Malik Willis. While Willis is bound for the pros, Freeze's potent system remains. 

With Liberty appearing near the midway point of the season, its high-octane offense should provide a telling barometer of the progress UMass has made on defense. 

It's also worth noting that in 2021, Liberty was on the wrong end of the most lopsided upset of the season per Las Vegas point spread with the Flames losing to Louisiana-Monroe as a 32.5-point favorite.