UMass has pass catching connection that goes way back

When he heard the play call, Andrew Ford knew immediately that his tight end would get open for a touchdown pass. When Adam Breneman heard the play call, he knew that if he got open, his quarterback would get him the ball.

Moments later, both were correct as Massachusetts notched the clinching score in an eventual 21-13 win against FIU. Not only did the touchdown help the Minutemen to their first victory of the season, it showcased a pair of high school friends who reconnected after lengthy and at times adverse paths.

“Being in the end zone and seeing him with a big smile on his face was kind of a special moment for us,” Breneman said. “We’ve been best friends for a while now. We didn’t know if we’d ever play football together again, so that was a pretty special moment for us.”

Ford and Breneman are a pitch-catch combination that’s long on history, chemistry and ability. Both give UMass (1-2) hope moving forward, the next step Saturday on ASN against Mississippi State at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

The duo provided a glimpse in last Saturday’s win. Ford completed 28 of 42 passes for 278 yards and three touchdowns in his Division I debut, while Breneman caught 10 balls for 77 yards and the third-quarter score.

“It was something that we talked about ever since this situation came up here at UMass,” Ford said. “We talked about maybe getting that connection going one more time. To be able to connect a couple times on some passes was really neat, but just getting out there and playing as well as he did was really cool for me, because I know some of the stuff he’s dealt with, and he wanted nothing more than to be out on the field and play well, and that’s what he did.”

Breneman figures to be an integral part of the Minutemen offense, while Ford’s role is less certain. He played versus FIU because of an injury to starter Ross Comis the week prior against Boston College. Head coach Mark Whipple told local media this week that Comis is making progress, but he hasn’t named a starter for Mississippi State.

Either way, the Minutemen appear to have two capable quarterbacks.

“I go in each week preparing like I’m the starter,” Ford said. “Whatever happens, whatever Coach Whipple and the staff decide to do, I’m all for it. I’m just going to try to help in any way possible. My preparation hasn’t changed since Virginia Tech and I don’t think it will change. I’ve just got to handle my job and make sure I’m ready if my number’s called.”

Preparation is essential for both after traveling different routes to Amherst, Mass. UMass is Breneman’s second stop, Ford’s third in college careers that neither anticipated.

The duo starred at Cedar Cliff High in Camp Hill, Pa., near the state capital of Harrisburg. Breneman, one year older than Ford, was rated by some scouting services as the No. 1 tight end prospect in the nation. He is a 6-4, 245-pound blend of smarts and athleticism whose promising career at Penn State was curtailed by injuries.

Ford was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania in 2013, a four-star recruit who originally chose Virginia Tech over Pittsburgh and Virginia. Uncomfortable with Tech’s offense and concerned about playing time, he left after one redshirt season. He starred at a Pennsylvania junior college last season and then signed with UMass last spring.

“It was a dream of mine to play college football,” said Ford, a 6-3, 205-pound left-hander, “and to get to do that on Saturday was really neat, having the opportunity to be at home in front of our fans. It was something that I probably don’t appreciate as much as I will a couple years down the road. But I was really excited about the opportunity to be out there with the guys and I was fortunate that my family was here, as well, so it was a really cool experience for all of us.”

After a promising freshman season at Penn State, Breneman envisioned nothing but success. He would leave school after three years, be a high NFL draft choice and enjoy a long and productive pro career. But a bone bruise and subsequent injury to his left knee shelved him for the entire 2014 season and for all but two games in 2015.

Breneman announced last January that he was giving up football, but reconsidered several months later as his body finally healed. He wanted a fresh start and UMass provided the opportunity. Whipple’s son, Austin, was one of his best friends at Penn State, so he was familiar with the Minutemen’s staff and program. Whipple’s offenses and his track record in college and the NFL — he coached at Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Philadelphia — were appealing. And it didn’t hurt that his high school quarterback and good friend was also in the fold.

“It’s amazing how things change,” Breneman said. “It’s life. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can respond to things in a positive way, or you can walk around and feel sorry for yourself. I tried to take things in stride and make the most of it.”

Because Breneman earned a degree in three years, he was eligible immediately as a graduate transfer. He still considers himself a Penn Stater, he said, and is grateful to coach James Franklin for his support throughout. He said that he feels better now, physically, than he has in years.

Ford’s trials were more mental than physical. Not to say there won’t be more, but he is better equipped to deal with them.

“God has a plan,” he said. “If I don’t understand it, just trust in it. Some things that happened, I didn’t really understand. Things are starting to unfold now, things are starting to make sense. I learned that no matter what life throws at me, just to keep a positive attitude, to keep rolling and work at it. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people along the way that I’m going to know for the rest of my life. It’s been a long journey, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

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