Walt Bell didn’t spend that much time in Tallahassee and the 2018 football season was a shaky one for Florida State, which finished 5-7. But it was a stop on his coaching journey where he lived and learned, also helping him get in position for a job as UMass’ head coach.
“Tallahassee is an unbelievable place,” Bell said on Tuesday morning. “My wife (Maria) loved it there. Great town. Great places to eat. Really good people. We loved it there. … It was a tough eight months just based on wins and losses and expectations. But it was a great opportunity for my family and just great to be at a place with unbelievable football tradition like Florida State.”
Now in his third season as UMass’ coach, Bell will return to Tallahassee this weekend to face the Seminoles on homecoming (noon on ACC Network). UMass is just 2-20 since Bell was hired in December 2018, taking over a program that had success at the FCS level but is viewed as one of the toughest in the Group of 5 conferences.
That’s in large part due to the challenges of recruiting prospects to Amherst, Mass. The Minutemen (1-5) have 32 players with ties to Massachusetts but have had to recruit well beyond the region, accumulating as many players from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Maryland.
UMass picked up a win over rival UConn two weeks ago — snapping a 16-game losing streak — as Ellis Merriweather had 39 carries for 171 yards in the 27-13 win. The Minutemen also had a bye before traveling to face FSU, which will pay $1.5 million for the guarantee game.
There aren’t that many players on the roster remaining from FSU’s offense who played under Bell, then the offensive coordinator, in 2018. Receiver Keyshawn Helton, tight end Camren McDonald and offensive linemen Baveon Johnson and Brady Scott are among the examples.
And there’s just one coach remaining from when Bell was here: Odell Haggins.
“Anytime you get to work with a guy like Odell Haggins, that’s a blessing in your life as many people as Odell has helped in terms of student-athletes and players and developed,” Bell said. “He’s also been an unbelievable guy for all the people that have worked with him as well.”
Bell said he can see the improvement from FSU in its last two games, wins over Syracuse and at UNC.
“They look much better,” Bell said. “On offense right now you can tell there’s a plan. They’re really simple right now, they’re really sound, they’re really focused on execution and effort. On defense some of the additions they’ve had in the transfer portal plus the continued development of some young players, but you can see them improving and developing and becoming a better team every week.”
Bell said he doesn’t know Norvell well but he has followed his teams at Memphis and spoke of a mutual friend, Tennessee offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, who he said holds Norvell in high regard.
“I know Mike is the right guy for that job,” Bell said. “And it’s gonna take time and as long as he continues to develop the roster and continues to elevate the team through recruiting, which I know they work their asses off. Mike is an unbelievable worker. He’s unbelievably organized, he’s unbelievably efficient and he’s gonna do a great job there. And so I know he’s a great coach. Don’t know him personally incredibly well, but I know he works incredibly hard and does a great job.”
FSU’s offensive line has found some continuity in its last few games, in part due to the return of center Maurice Smith. Smith missed a few games due to injury but came off the bench against Syracuse and then started at North Carolina.
The bye week came at an ideal time for Smith to recharge for the second half of the season.
“It was a great week off to recover my body and get back on the field and just get back to work,” Smith said.
While Smith has missed some of the games, FSU’s line has been able to open up holes in the run game. Bolstered in part by a few breakaway runs from Jashaun Corbin and Treshaun Ward, as well as the mobility of Jordan Travis, the Seminoles have five 200-yard games in the first half of the season — the first time that has happened in a six-game span since 1995, according to research by Florida State sports information.
“It’s great to see the backs succeed,” Smith said. “We’re blocking and opening holes for them. They believe in us.”
Rebuilding depth at DT
Norvell again praised Malcolm Ray for how he played at UNC as well as practiced in the absence of Dennis Briggs Jr. (out for season) and with Jarrett Jackson out due to injury. Jackson made his first career start against Syracuse, while Ray made his first start at UNC.
“He’s young — that’s the reality of it,” Norvell said of Ray. “He’s a young player that has just continued to take those little steps. … He has ability, he has skill. But it’s also consistency that we need. He’s rising to the challenge.”
Norvell also said Jackson is back in the mix after missing the UNC game due to injury.
“Being able to get JJ back out this week, he’s looked good Sunday and today,” Norvell said. “It’s been rough these last couple weeks. We’ve been very, very limited in our personnel there. Those guys have had to play a lot of snaps. It’s good to see them back out and able to get that work.”
FSU boasts a 59-12-1 (.826) all-time record on Homecoming and has won eight straight Homecoming contests.