By the end of last season, things started to come together for the Buffalo State football team. The little mistakes were minimized. Players began to understand the intangibles which make the difference between hoping to win and expecting to win. The result was a three-game winning streak to close out 2010.
And then coach Jerry Boyes started to hear the questions: "Coach, have you turned the corner?"
He won't know the answer until the Bengals get back into game action with their season-opener Sept. 3 at Cortland.
"That's the question and it's only answered by the players' play this year," Boyes said. "Have we turned the corner? That really is the standout question and it's the challenge I've presented to the players. ... Right now, I'd like to think we have the talent. But right now it's just potential. Potential never wins any games. It's how well they work on the aspects of working as a team and truly working together. Everybody has talent. It's the intangibles and the little details which really define the level of success we have."
The good news for the Bengals includes the return of 34 players and 14 starters. Among those back are junior quarterback Ryan Lehotsky and senior linebacker Brandon Hodgins.
While attempting to keep momentum alive from one season to another is a tricky thing, the win streak to close out last year certainly helps those returning players mentally.
"It definitely gives us confidence because we know we can go out there and if we do our jobs, we can do what we're supposed to do ... our offense can score points and our defense can stop others. It definitely gives us confidence," Lehotsky said. "Last year, one of the things that killed us were our mental mistakes. We were kind of young and inexperienced last year and we would do things that would just put us behind the 8-ball. We would make it harder for ourselves. This year already, things are going smoother now that everyone is on the same page."
For Hodgins, having a large number of returners has made working in freshmen and transfers that much easier. The bulk of the team understands the philosophy that Boyes brings to the game as the head coach enters his third year of his second stint on the Bengals' sidelines.
"This year we've returned the most number of players since I've been here," Hodgins said. "So we've got a lot of kids who know how the system works, how defense and offense works. We've got some transfers who are working out and a lot of young freshmen who are learning pretty fast. People know the system now and that should be a huge advantage for us.
"Coach Boyes has a confidence to himself and he expects to win. He expects to be the best. I've been here three years with him. When he got here, he expected to win. And now, everybody expects to win. That's just the way it is."
Hodgins led the Bengals with 78 tackles (44 solo stops) and nine tackles for loss including three sacks to earn honorable mention status from the New Jersey Athletic Conference.
He leads a core of seven returning defensive starters, including junior linebacker Matthew Krumm (Clarence, 73 total tackles), junior linebacker Jordan Boser (70 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss), senior free safety Kevin Healy (27 tackles) and senior defensive end Kimani George (five sacks, 19 tackles for loss).
Lehotsky continued to show improvement and gain confidence last season, throwing for 2,100 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions for an efficiency rating of 171.8.
Other key returnees on offense include receiver Matt Pagano (16 catches, 156 yards, one touchdown) and fullback Ben Mauer (10 catches, 130 yards, three TDs). Manny Brooks is the leading returner rusher (36 carries in six games for 168 yards and a touchdown).