Pallotta makes change in season of change

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent

JACKSON TWP. There haven't been any "normal" college football seasons in 2020, but for former Jackson standout and University of Massachusetts redshirt sophomore Jaret Pallotta and his teammates, this season was weirder than most.

Jackson graduate Jaret Pallotta, a sophmore tight end for the University of Massachusetts, makes a catch in a game against Marshall.

Pallotta, now in his third season with the Minutemen, has seen a lot change since he set foot in Amherst, Mass., but even a position change and having to gain weight to play his new spot on the field couldn't compare with the oddity of the 2020 campaign.

"It was definitely strange. We had to test two or three times a week and do another official test before we hit the road (for games)," Pallotta said. "We got back in the middle of the summer and we figured if we could stay healthy and trained  we would get to have a season, then when basically all of college football announced no one was going to be playing we thought we weren't going to have a season, then a month later we found out that we were going to have a season."

Even hearing it described after the fact feels a bit confusing, but for a team such as UMass that is an independent and doesn't have a conference affiliation to rely on for generating a schedule, it was a tougher road this fall. Pallotta noted the process the Mid-American Conference, with which UMass was affiliated from 2012-15 for football, went through when it decided to hold a football season this fall.

Although the MAC started later than most conferences in Division I, the conference was able to assemble a six-game slate for all 12 of its teams by playing league games only. Instead of having a schedule laid out well in advance, the Minutemen instead had to set up one game at a time based on which schools had openings.

It was similar to the challenge local high schools faced in Ohio, except that instead of scheduling a game against a rival school 45 minutes away, UMass athletic officials were working on scheduling games with teams several states away.

"We found out that we were playing Georgia Southern and we didn't know until after that game that our next game was going to be Marshall," Pallotta said. "It was on a week-to-week basis which team we would be scheduled to play, but we always had at least a week to prepare."

There are just six independent teams this season at the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision level, but some leagues have allowed member schools to schedule non-league contests in addition to conference games.

The result for UMass is a season that featured four road games and no home contests. The Minutemen traveled to Georgia Southern, to West Virginia to play No. 16 Marshall, to Florida to battle Florida Atlantic and to Virginia to play Liberty.

That meant logging a lot of miles and facing teams with a combined 28-8 record through Dec. 7, a rugged slate that left UMass with an 0-4 record. It was also Pallotta's first season playing a new position, as he shifted from quarterback to tight end during the offseason.

Like many players, for Pallotta, it was as simple as wanting to find a way to get onto the field and being willing to accept the challenge when the coaching staff came to him with the idea of making the shift.

"We were in the middle of last season, my redshirt freshman year, and I have good relationship with staff, so (head) coach (Walt) Bell asked if I could put on 20 to 25 pounds and see where it went from there, then after the season he asked me to make the change to tight end. I wanted to be a contributor for the team and so it was a no-brainer for me."

Adding weight – and how to do it – has become a well-publicized topic for football players in recent years, as well as how players lose that weight once their football careers are over. Pallotta didn't have to add the 50 or 60 pounds that some players put on when they make the move to the offensive or defensive line, but still needed to bulk up to transition from quarterback to tight end.

While the position change did keep him on the same side of the football and playing quarterback necessitated understanding route concepts and working with tight ends and receivers, there was one side of his new role that Pallotta found to be the most difficult.

"The hardest part was definitely the physical aspect. I spent the first 20 years of my life wearing yellow (non-contact) jerseys in practice and not hitting people, so that first fall camp hitting people and being in the trenches all day was an adjustment," Pallotta said.

Still, he was at peace with the change, having talked to his family and a few close friends for input when considering making the shift. Once he committed to it, he didn't head to the nearest fast food restaurant and start ordering triple cheeseburgers and milkshakes; instead, it was keeping his normal diet and adding four protein shakes and three or four peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a day to the mix to add 1,500 to 2,000 calories day in, day out.

The end result was a 6-foot-5, 248-pound frame and seeing regular playing time at tight end this fall. It's a trend Pallotta hopes will increase even though by the time next season rolls around, he plans to have an undergraduate degree in hand. With a redshirt season in his first year on campus and working to graduate a year early, he intends to begin graduate school this fall at UMass.

That would allow him to continue playing football and enjoy the remainder of his eligibility while pursuing a graduate degree in finance. Long term, he has an eye on a career in venture capital but knows there's a lot of work to be done in the classroom and on the football field before then. He's home for the semester break, but will return to campus for the spring semester along with what is an athlete-heavy student population as UMass continues online-only classes.

Like many other colleges and universities, that has left the majority of the students physically on campus as athletes who need to be there in order to practice and play games. It's led to odd experiences, such as walking into what would normally be a crowded dining hall, only to have it mostly empty and those inside wearing masks as they move about and sitting a safe social distance away from one another. They're all new realities in what has been a truly weird year, but like so many athletes across all levels of sports, Pallotta is thankful to still be able to compete in the midst of the pandemic.