In a perfect world Jappy Oliver would observe more during practice and let one of his leaders take over the role of cracking the whip with the defensive linemen.
It sounds like that time is coming soon.
“We’re seeing fewer mistakes and they’re buying into what we’re teaching,” said Oliver, the University at Buffalo’s assistant head/defensive line coach. “More than anything else they’re chasing the football from every position, we’re demanding that. We don’t have to push that as much as we did the first year. They’re buying into it.”
Despite returning just one starter along the defensive line, Oliver sees a unit ripe for improvement against the run.
Losing Steven Means, a bullish four-year starter at defensive end, who grew more vocal in his leadership toward the end of his career, and nose guard Wyatt Cahill will undoubtedly affect the line. Last season, Means was third on the team in tackles behind Khalil Mack and Lee Skinner with 77 and was second in tackles for a loss behind Mack with 11. He was third in sacks behind Mack and Colby Way with 6.5.
But his departure – his Pro Day numbers indicated the NFL could come calling – has UB looking for someone to fill the void more so on the field than off.
“We still think we can replace that position with someone we have on our defense,” Oliver said. “But in terms of that body type, that’s going to be hard for us to replace. We can put guys in certain running situations, put guys in certain passing situations and get the best of both worlds. Steven gave us the best of both worlds.”
Beau Bachtelle, a 6-foot-5, 272-pound senior from Tuolumme, Calif., gets first crack at replacing Means. He played in all 12 games a year ago as part of the defensive line rotation and recorded 11 tackles, including three solo. He’s also been one of the biggest surprises this spring.
Seldom can a team lose a four-year starter only to assert that the collective leadership has increased.
Unlike Means, who had to be nudged into the role, the 6-foot-4, 276-pound Way has been a vocal presence since arriving on campus. Entering his third season as a starter, the senior from State College, Pa., anchors the Bulls’ three-man front.
“He’s assumed more of the leadership responsibility now,” Oliver said. “He’s never been shy about stepping up and is a great leader on and off the field, and I think our players look up to him. A lot of our young men see it and they gravitate toward him.”
Competing for the starting job at nose guard are juniors Kristjan Sokoli and Dalton Barksdale, who can play nose or tackle.
Sokoli’s offseason transformation has made the biggest impact after adding 18 pounds and bulking up to 315 pounds.
Sokoli made one start last season while Barksdale, whose brother Joseph was an All-Southeastern Conference performer at LSU, totaled 12 tackles as a reserve.
“I just need Kristjan to transfer all that work in the weight room onto the field,” Oliver said. “I need him to give me a little more attitude. He’s put about two or three good back-to-back practices. He’s came on a little slow at the start of the spring but I’ve seen him step it up.”
Depth has been an issue this spring but the staff signed several candidates who could compete for immediate playing time including Xavier Davis (6-2, 280) from Atlanta, and Brandon Crawford (6-2, 235) from Madison, Fla., who, like Means, can play outside linebacker and end.
Others include nose guard Chris Ford (6-3, 300) from Medina, Ohio, end Tedroy Lynch (6-2, 245) from Lackawanna Junior College and tackle Zach Smekal (6-4, 255) from Medford, N.J.
“Hopefully a couple of them will add to the depth, whether they work to be a backup or not has yet to be proven,” Oliver said.