Byline: Bud Barth
COLUMN: UMASS FOOTBALL
AMHERST - Though he disputes the sloppy dimensions, Emil Igwenagu has come a long way from what Holy Name coach Mike Pucko once called "this fat little kid who couldn't fit into his uniform" on the first day of West Boylston Pop Warner football practice some years ago.
Now a powerfully chiseled, 6-foot-1, 230-pound fullback, Igwenagu could become one of the key elements to the University of Massachusetts ground game as a freshman this fall after being red-shirted last season following one of the best rushing careers in Central Mass. schoolboy history.
The talented 19-year-old Boylston resident rushed for 5,037 yards and 54 touchdowns for the Naps, capping off his career with a school-record 1,772 yards as a senior while averaging a mind-boggling 13.3 yards a carry. He was named MVP of Holy Name's two Super Bowl victories, was a key architect of the 15-game winning streak he left behind for the Naps, and made 290 tackles and 12 interceptions as a defensive back, which explains why the Minutemen originally recruited him as a linebacker.
But through graduation, UMass lost seven of 11 offensive starters, including its leading rusher, Matt Lawrence, who supplied 71 percent of the ground game (1,680 of last season's 2,376 rushing yards). That means quite a load will fall this season on sparingly-used junior tailback Tony Nelson, plus junior Chris Zardas and Igwenagu, who are currently 1-2 on the fullback depth chart.
"He's playing that fullback, H-back type role for us, and obviously this is his first real go-round to get himself ready to play," said fifth-year UMass coach Don Brown, whose roots go back to his coaching days at David Prouty High in Spencer.
"He's been semi-quiet because he's learning, but in a short-yardage situation (at yesterday's practice), we had to pick one of our defensive backs up because he was underneath the turf after Emil ran him over. So we think this is a young man with tremendous potential. He just has to turn it into performance."
Igwenagu never got that chance last season, being red-shirted because of an existing glut of running backs...