DETROIT — High hopes and optimism were the topics of conversation Tuesday at the 2013 Mid-American Conference football media day at Ford Field.
After taking over in 2010 and slowly building the program, University at Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn firmly believes his team is ready to take the next step by recording its first winning season and MAC championship since 2008 for several reasons.
First is that there have been no coaching changes, which Quinn says allows for continuity with the team’s philosophy and how the coaching staff plans on developing the football program and the players individually.
Secondly, the team has added 1,100 pounds of lean body mass in the offseason, or roughly 10 pounds per player.
But most importantly, UB has lost only six starters from last year’s team, the second fewest in the MAC to Bowling Green, and will return 17 starters (nine on offense and eight on defense).
In the 2013 MAC preseason poll, UB received one first-place vote and is predicted to finish fourth in the East Division, as voted by the league’s media members, ahead of Miami, Akron and UMass. Ohio is predicted to win the East followed by Bowling Green and Kent State.
Northern Illinois is predicted to win the West Division and the 2013 Marathon MAC Football Championship.
Among those returning to UB are four seniors on preseason national watch lists: wide receiver Alex Neutz (Biletnikoff Award), cornerback Najja Johnson (Jim Thorpe Award), running back Branden Oliver (Maxwell and Doak Walker Award) and linebacker Khalil Mack (Chuck Bednarik, Bronko Nagurski, Rotary Lombardi and Butkus Awards), who is 19 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles shy of NCAA records.
“We have a solid group of young men and are returning our core nucleus of players,” said Quinn, who is entering his fourth year as head coach. “Our team stayed together last year and was able to secure some wins down the stretch. I think that team learned how to win some games, but this year’s team needs to learn how to win a championship.”
But to Quinn, the biggest move was being able to lure back Mack for his senior year.
“Khalil is a great competitor, but more importantly he knew he didn’t achieve all his goals he set forth when he came to Buffalo,” he said. “One of the things I always said is that we brought back our No. 1 player on our team and also signed our best recruit.”
According to Mack, his decision to forgo the NFL Draft and return to Buffalo was because he wanted to finish school and earn his degree in psychology.
“I talked to family and friends, and my mom and dad are really focused on me being the first of their children to get a college degree,” he said. “It’s something me and my dad have been competing back-and-forth with since I got to college. He told me he was going to beat me getting my degree and he did. But it was something that was very important to me and my family.”
Quinn and Mack think that with the return of the bulk of a defense that finished second in the MAC in total defense, that unit will only get better.
“We’re looking forward to going to a whole other level defensively,” Mack said. “Playing with guys like Najja Johnson, Cortney Lester and Lee Skinner for so long, we put in a lot of time with each other and we have a very experienced group. We are looking forward to playing at the highest level this year.”
Offensively, there will be a battle at quarterback between senior Alex Zordich and sophomore Joe Licata, and more additions to the receiving corps to help the passing game.
“To put it all together, we have good balance, a lot of good players and we really like our chances with this core group of kids,” Quinn said.
Buffalo faces the daunting task of opening the season on the road against Ohio State on Aug. 31 and Baylor on Sept. 7.
“It’s a great opportunity. It will be a marker to see where we are and where we match up against the rest of the NCAA,” Neutz said. “We’re going to go to Ohio State and Baylor and play to the best of our ability and try to get the win.”
Quinn acknowledges that a win against Ohio State or Baylor would be huge for any football program, but would be the type of boost UB needs at the beginning of the season.
“We have our hands full out the gate but we have to get out with a fast start. That’s important for us to gain momentum in order for us to be able to compete down the stretch when November really matters,” Quinn said.