When the University at Buffalo goes to its four-wide spread formation, a friendly geographical rivalry emerges among its four receivers. Set wide are Marcus Rivers and Alex Neutz, a pair of native Western New Yorkers, both standing no less than 6-foot-4. In the slot are Terrell Jackson and Ed Young, a pair of 6-footers hailing from the Fort Worth, Texas, area.
"We always have that battle, New York versus Texas, New York versus Florida, which state is the best?" Rivers said. "But I feel me and Neutz, being the big receivers, we can bully the 5-8 receivers."
"Those guys know they can't handle the Texas guys," was Jackson's counter to Rivers' ribbing.
"But in all seriousness, though," Jackson continued, "I think it's a great thing that we come together and represent different aspects as players. Me and Ed are both slot receivers per se, but we're not the exact same in our way of playing. Marcus Rivers and Neutz, they're outside receivers but they're not the same in their style of play. I think the good thing is we all four come together and bring something different, a different twist to the game. And I think that's going to be great."
Big things are expected out of the receiving corps this year as the Bulls strive to rebound from a 2-10 season in which the offense sputtered, stalled and spewed a ghastly cloud of confusion. Explanations for what went awry abound: inexperience at quarterback; injuries on the offensive line; the absence of a running game; unfamiliarity with the no-huddle spread offense favored by coach Jeff Quinn; the contrast between Quinn's Type-A personality and the laid-back ways of his predecessor, Turner Gill. It could be that all were factors given the extent of what transpired -- seven straight losses to end the season and a failure to reach the end zone more than twice in any of them.
The Bulls added an experienced quarterback to the mix as fifth-year senior Chazz Anderson transferred from Cincinnati, where he was a backup in a spread offense formerly overseen by Quinn. UB also has two returning quarterbacks -- Alex Zordich and Jerry Davis -- who started games last year and broadened their knowledge of Quinn's no-huddle spread. Familiarity alone should put the Bulls on more solid footing this season and liberate their talented receivers, a group that runs some eight deep.
"That's probably as solid a group as I've been around in my 28 years of coaching," Quinn said of his receiving corps. "That's a great group of kids and we expect great things out of them."
"We got great depth in the receiving corps," Neutz said. "I mean, we got to be one of the deepest in the league. Marcus, Terrell, Ed and myself, and we got Fred Lee, Cordero Dixon, Devin Hughes and Saron Hood. We got eight that can play easily and we can probably go even deeper with Rudy Johnson [a converted QB] and stuff like that."
"Last year we had things that weren't connected," Jackson said. "And now we have a perfect situation. The quarterbacks now are more experienced. Chazz coming in has helped us a bunch."
UB receivers shot out of the gate last season as if records were destined to fall. Rivers snared 10 passes for 155 yards in the 31-0 opening rout of Rhode Island. Neutz produced five catches for 99 yards, Jackson three for 28 and Young three for 23. All four found the end zone. And then an unexpected reality slapped them in the face. Rivers finished the season with just 50 catches, Jackson 43, Neutz 26 and Young 20. Rivers and Young tied for the team lead with five touchdown catches apiece. The numbers hardly equaled the excitement and expectations generated by the ease of their opening victory.
Then again, the Bulls went into last season without a single quarterback with experience running Quinn's no-huddle spread. This year, in Anderson, Zordich and Davis, they have three.
"I think we have a couple quarterbacks that can get the ball there now," Quinn said. "They're more locked in to where the ball needs to be. Receivers are running the right depth in the routes. They're breaking at the right depth. They're doing exactly what we've asked them to do whereas last year it was just too inconsistent. I didn't like the way it was coached, I didn't like the way it was played. And it hurt us."
For UB's four main receivers, learning the finer points of the position remains an ongoing process. Neutz, a sophomore, played volleyball as a Grand Island freshman, joined the football team as a defensive back the following year and switched to receiver as a junior. Rivers, a senior, moved from running back to wideout after a 6-inch growth spurt between his sophomore and junior seasons at Lackawanna. Still, he caught all of 16 passes in two years at receiver with the Steelers.
Jackson and Young found the position in a different way. Both Texas natives arrived at UB as quarterbacks and, instead of battling for one spot on the field, improved their odds of playing early and often by shifting to a position that offers three or four opportunities.
"I never was named a receiver ever in my career until college," Jackson said. "I came in and Coach Gill said, "TJ, do you want to try quarterback or go to receiver?' I said, "If you let quarterbacks return kicks and punts then I'll play quarterback.' If not I'll stay at receiver.'
"I'm a guy blessed with a lot of talent to be able to do a lot of things on the field, and I like to go running the ball, reverses, even throwing the ball. I like to be dynamic and versatile in my game, and that's the biggest reason I chose to stay at receiver and that's how I came about being a receiver. Looking at the next level, that'll give me the best opportunity to compete. I'll have a shot I would not have had as much as a quarterback."
"When I came in they gave me an opportunity to see if I was going to be a wide receiver or a quarterback and I picked wide receiver," Young said. "I wanted to get on the field. I was just an all-around athlete. I just wanted to get on the field."
It's commonplace in the college game to see athletes switch speed and skill positions to meet a need or a desire. But the transition can take time. Rivers had all kinds of problems holding onto the ball his first two seasons. His case of the drops was so severe there were rumors he'd be phased out after his sophomore year.
"It took time but finally I'm getting it and understanding what receiver is about," Rivers said. "Being a running back all you do is carry the ball. You really don't have to catch the ball outside the backfield. But body control and understanding the ball placement, just being aware of a lot of things, coverages and all that good stuff that comes with it."
The four have progressed to where Quinn considers the position his team's greatest strength. But there's always work to do, forever ways to improve.
"They've come a long way," Quinn said. "One of the things that we did not do last year was commit ourselves to blocking in the run game. In the perimeter it was nowhere near what I expected. And [this year] they are hustling and blocking, and [offensive coordinator Alex Wood] has really gotten after these kids to understand the importance of that. A lot of our big runs have been because of a big-time effort downfield with our receivers, which adds to our play-action dimension for explosive plays downfield. If you're coming off the ball every time the same way, those DBs don't know whether you're going to run the ball or throw the ball, and as soon as they get a little nosy we have explosive players that can get behind the back end of the defense."
The Bulls are in no position to take a half-way approach to the season. Jackson, Rivers and Young were here for UB's Mid-American Conference championship season of 2008. It's a feeling they strive to recapture.
"You can probably find a thousand guys out there around the 6-feet range, 4.5, 4.4 [40 speed] range," Jackson said. "But the difference is, is he going to be able to block when he has a block? Is he going to be able to understand the position? Is he going to be able to get in those hots when the linebackers are blitzing and things like that? I think that's one of those kind of hidden areas that a lot of guys don't take serious but that's the difference between a six-, seven-win season and a 12-, 13-win season."
"We feel like this year it's on us," Rivers said. "If we have to score 40 points we're going to score 40 points. It doesn't matter. We just have to understand that Coach Quinn has the plan and we have to follow it."