Lacey Township High School's Tyrell Smith liked the idea of building something from the ground up.

That's why he decided to play football for the University of Massachusetts, which this season will move up from the NCAA's Football Championship Subdiv-ision (formerly Division I-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Minutemen will play in the Mid-American Conference, which includes teams such as Temple and Northern Illinois.

"In the end, I chose UMass because I felt it was the place for me," Smith, 17, said in a phone interview Wednesday after signing a national letter of intent. "They were a I-AA program moving up to I-A, and they're going to be the underdog in every situation. I want to be a part of a program like that. That starts at the bottom and moves to the top. I want to start my college career with a challenge."

Smith was one of two Lacey football seniors who signed Wednesday, the first day that athletes in fall sports could officially commit to NCAA programs. Teammate Jordan Powell decided on the University of New Hampshire, which plays in the FCS. Both players will be on full athletic scholarships and expect to redshirt as freshmen.

Smith, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound lineman, also considered the University of Nevada and did not make his decision until Tuesday morning. To help decide, he weighed the pros and cons of each school.

"I had a little sheet where I wrote down all the things that were important to me school-wise," Smith said. "I put both schools on one side, and that came down to the wire, too. UMass ended up winning by a couple of points. I had a feel for it. I actually had a feel for UMass before I went there (to visit)."

Smith said he was drawn to the school because of academics - he plans to study business - and because of the team's family atmosphere. The coaches also seemed serious about making the jump to Division I, he said. The Minutemen finished 5-6 last season, 3-5 in the Colonial Athletic Association. First-year coach Charley Molnar spent the past two seasons as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator.

"They told me they're ready to compete," Smith said. "There's going to be a lot of teams out there that won't think they're ready to compete, but the coaches are ready for it. I like that attitude."

Powell, a 6-3, 220-pound linebacker and tight end, decided on New Hampshire after going on a weekend visit to the Durham, N.H., campus.

"I went there and loved it," the 17-year-old said. "I didn't even want to go to any other college."

After visiting the school Jan. 20, Powell said he had a good feeling about the relationship between the players and the coaches.

"When the coaches were together and hanging out with the players, it's awesome," Powell said. "I wanted to just play at the highest level I possibly could, and all the players were talking good about the coaches."

The Wildcats went 8-4 last season, 6-2 in the CAA - including a 27-21 win over Massachusetts.

Powell and Smith said they were happy for each other, but over the past week, Smith's indecision became the source of jokes between them.

"I would go up to him and say, 'Come on. You've got to tell me,' " Powell said. "He didn't tell me until (Wednesday) morning. Whenever I would start talking to him about the recruiting process, he wouldn't want to talk about."

Smith laughed about the situation.

"He was a little upset with me because I didn't tell anyone where I was going," Smith said. "I kept everyone wondering, and he wanted me to tell him. But he was proud of me and I'm proud of him.

"We're not that far away. We're definitely going to keep in touch, and I wish him the best of luck in everything he does."

Contact Jeff Sporer:

609-272-7210