Jeff Quinn knows the comparisons are inevitable. It's what happens when you're the man who follows The Man.
The ability to connect emotionally with the University at Buffalo players, sometimes by creative means, will serve Quinn well as he attempts a seamless transition into a program that reached the pinnacle of the Mid-American Conference just two years ago. Quinn's task: Take a respectable program even higher.
Like Turner Gill, who left for Kansas, Quinn was a longtime assistant coach. Unlike Gill, who displayed a loving, almost Kumbaya demeanor, Quinn is intense and in-your-face, a characteristic his players embrace.
"Coach Quinn," said senior cornerback Domonic Cook, "is what this team needs right now."
UB, which Gill resurrected to respectability, had won eight games in the five seasons before he arrived as coach. In the last three, UB went 19-20, with two division titles, a league championship and the school's first bowl bid in 50 years. It's a middling won-loss record but a vast improvement considering UB was the worst program in the country before Gill took over.
In that sense, Quinn's current job is not to rebuild, but to polish the program in his own image.
"We're setting the expectations that are so important for us to have the results that we're looking for this season," Quinn said. "We know it's a long season and we're working toward making sure the players understand those purposeful practice expectations that we've set forth."
The defense, which will switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 to take advantage of its strength at linebacker, is deep and experienced. Six starters are back from a unit that allowed 23.7 points per game last season.
It starts in the secondary with a pair of four-year starters in Cook at cornerback and free safety Davonte Shannon, who will attempt to become a four-time first-team All-MAC selection. Senior Josh Thomas has been overshadowed by Shannon, Cook and the departed Mike Newton but the coaching staff believes Thomas is better than any cornerback they had at Cincinnati, where Quinn spent three years. Sophomore Ray Anthony Long replaces Newton, now with the Indianapolis Colts, at strong safety alongside Shannon.
Somehow, linebacker Justin Winters was snubbed when the All-MAC team was selected a year ago, which should serve as fuel for motivation for his senior season. This could be a breakout season for sophomore defensive end Steven Means, who came on strong at the end of last year. Means, redshirt freshman outside linebacker Khalil Mack and sophomore outside linebacker Jaleel Verser will apply pressure off the edge. More often than not, defensive coordinator William Inge's unit has dominated the offense in practice.
The offensive line, which returns three starters in senior left guard Peter Bittner, junior center Josh Violanti and senior right tackle Jordan Jerrold, has slimmed down and has been efficient in running Quinn's spread offense. Until starting quarterback Jerry Davis ripens, Quinn may utilize his deep bench of tailbacks. Redshirt freshman Brandon Oliver, who was enjoying a strong spring until he injured his knee, emerged from a pack of experienced veterans to earn the starting nod. The group is so deep that senior Ike Nduka, last season's leading rusher, is listed behind Oliver and senior Brandon Thermilus. Sophomore Jeffvon Gill, who averaged a team-best 6.3 yards a carry, is listed fourth.
When run properly, the no-huddle, spread offense can put up Xbox 360 kinds of numbers and Quinn helped guide a Cincinnati offense that piled up nearly 40 points a game in '09.
Zach Maynard's transfer to Cal leaves UB without much experience at quarterback. Davis has one career start and his backup, redshirt freshman Alex Dennison, has yet to take a snap as a collegian.
Gone are Naaman Roosevelt, Brett Hamlin and Jesse Rack, the team's top three receivers. Junior Terrell Jackson, who had 25 receptions for 250 yards, is the leading returning receiver. After him, junior Marcus Rivers is next with five catches for 35 yards and a touchdown. Someone has to emerge from a group that also includes redshirt freshmen Alex Neutz and Fred Lee and junior Ed Young.
While the defense improved a year ago, the unit didn't create nearly as many turnovers as it did in '08 and the team finished 103rd nationally in turnover margin. Because the Bulls didn't create nearly as many turnovers, they didn't catch the breaks that helped them win the league title in '08.
While Quinn played a key role in game planning and was the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati, head coach Brian Kelly called the plays. Greg Forest is UB's offensive coordinator but Quinn is calling plays for the first time.
Expectations, at least outside the program, are lower than they have been the last two years, which could come as a relief following the '09 meltdown. But there's enough talent for UB to rise up and surprise the pundits -- just as Quinn envisions -- especially considering the MAC is without an experienced, NFL-caliber quarterback for the first time in recent memory.
Quinn's hiring has energized fans, but significant questions -- at quarterback and wide receiver -- could make for a shaky debut in which a .500 season should be the highest expectation.