A year ago at this time, University at Buffalo football talked a good game. Coaches and players went on about competing for the Mid-American Conference championship and becoming bowl-eligible. They gushed about the program again being primed to turn the corner.
Truth is, there were too many holes to fill, too many uncertainties, to construe last year’s enthusiasm as anything more than competitive wishfulness. All teams talk up the promise of the approaching season. Not all of them have the brushes to paint the vision.
UB begins training camp Monday spewing the same familiar mantra: MAC title, bowl-eligible. This time there’s reason to take the Bulls seriously. They have at least five seniors considered NFL prospects in linebacker Khalil Mack, running back Branden Oliver, wideout Alex Neutz. cornerback Najja Johnson and defensive end Colby Way. Mack is widely identified as a player who could go in the top half of the first round. All five were named to the Phil Steele preseason all-conference first team.
Also, there’s a track record at quarterback for the first time in the tenure of fourth-year head coach Jeff Quinn. Homegrown Joe Licata replaced Alex Zordich for the final four games last season, won three of them and has been given the nod as starter as a redshirt sophomore. He’ll oversee an offense that returns three starting linemen, possesses an embarrassment of backfield riches but yearns for a wideout or slot receiver to emerge and make opponents pay for all the attention they’ll rain on Neutz.
What is Quinn looking to accomplish before the daunting season opener at Ohio State on Aug. 31?
“Without a doubt the leadership in that locker room is critical,” he said this week. “I always focus on that first. And then collectively, obviously a major emphasis on special teams performance and execution and being very disciplined in that area. That has been an area that has not met the standards that we expect around here and that is critical.
“Continue being a tremendous defense, pursuing the football and getting the doggone thing jarred loose. Offensively, just flat-out finish. We have to score more points.”
Here’s how the Bulls size up with the camp opener just two days away; all practices and scrimmages are closed to the public:
Licata came in and won three straight before the offense stalled in the finale at Bowling Green against the conference’s top defense. His leadership abilities were evident in UB’s rally from a 13-0 deficit to a 29-19 win at UMass.
His numbers over four starts were good but not great and he faced a less challenging schedule than the player he replaced, Alex Zordich. What strides Licata made during the offseason and continues to make from here will be a major factor in whether the Bulls reach their goals. But finally – finally! – UB opens a season with some experience at the position.
Oliver missed five games because of injury last season after his record-breaking sophomore season of 2011. Missing a player of his elite caliber is always a hit but it allowed the Bulls to learn that Devin Campbell, now a true sophomore, is the real deal. Add in Anthone Taylor’s return from a redshirt season, James Potts’ return from injury and a dependable option in shifty Brandon Murie and running back is the least of the team’s concerns.
“We’re going to have to be very, very creative in trying to get as many guys on the field as we can,” Quinn said.
The left side of tackle Andre Davis and guard Jasen Carlson returns and Trevor Sales is back in the middle. That’s a solid foundation which will be rounded out by the addition of two players who saw action last year, guard Dillon Guy and tackle Jake Silas. Depth could be an issue if injuries enter the equation. There’s little experience behind the starters, although the coaching staff sees potential in the likes of, among others, sophomores Todd Therrien, a converted defensive lineman out of Williamsville East, and tackle Bobby Blodgett.
“We got to stay healthy but I like the progress of some of these other guys,” Quinn said.
Grand Island’s Neutz already has secured places of prominence in the school record book. An eye-opening 11 of his 65 catches last season went for TDs. His career numbers could reach the stratosphere if someone steps forth as a reliable No. 2 option.
And if a third option emerges? This could be one of the MAC’s more dynamic offenses.
Senior Fred Lee is the team’s best blocking receiver and a vital contributor to the run game. But the Bulls need more out of him in the pass attack. Junior Devon Hughes has shown spectacular flashes. Now it’s a matter of consistency. Sophomores Marcus McGill (last year’s long-snapper) and Natey Adjei (already a CFL draft pick) can spread the field. The development/arrival of this group could be the tipping point for the season.
“They’re going to be given opportunities,” Quinn said.
Talented senior Jimmy Gordon tops a position at which the Bulls are a legitimate four deep. Gordon produced 17 catches and a pair of TDs last year as the Bulls got 24 catches out of the position. The tight end reception total should approach 40 this year because of the run game and the focus on Neutz will create opportunities.
Right end Way’s the headliner and the only returning starter. That’s a good place to begin. He was fifth in tackles, second in sacks (seven) and third in tackles for loss (10.5) last year. He’ll start camp up front with nose Kristjan Sikoli, last year’s backup to Wyatt Cahill, and end Beau Bachtelle, who replaces Tampa Bay Buc Steven Means.
“I like Sikoli. He’ll be fine,” Quinn said. “And Colby can play a multitude of positions inside. Beau Bachtelle, he has really come on. He’s had a great offseason.
“He’s got a high motor. He’ll play well for us.”
There’s reasonable depth up front although the Bulls surrender size if they get into it. Look for true freshman Tedroy Lynch (6-foot-2, 250 pounds) to see time and launch what’s expected to be a stellar career.
Mack weighed his pro options then decided to return to finish his degree and pursue a championship. He likely would have gone in the third or fourth round of the NFL Draft last April. Already he’s been elevated to a probable first-round pick, and we could be talking the top half of the first round. And to think he was once pulled out of a class in high school and asked, “Why aren’t you playing football?” He already owns school records in tackles for loss and forced fumbles.
The four-man unit oozes experience. Junior Jake Stockman and sophomore Lee Skinner ranked second and fourth on the Bulls in tackles last year but Stockman faces a challenge from juco transfer Blake Bean. They’ll be joined by senior Adam Redden, a St. Francis grad who’s made three positional changes in his career because Quinn keeps finding ways to get him on the field.
“The guy that really helps us is Blake Bean,” Quinn said. “Boy oh boy, what a good football player he is. Very instinctive. He’s a pursuing son of a gun. He learned our defense over spring ball and he’s a hitter.”
Corners Johnson and Cortney Lester ranked 1-2 in the MAC in interceptions last year. But there’s no rest at this position and this talented duo will have to sustain similar effort in a conference where quality wideouts abound.
They’ll have support from free safety Derek Brim and strong safety Okoye Houston – both game-tested. Brim, a Canisius High grad, started last year’s final five games as an injury replacement and emerged in a big way.
Best of all, there’s depth at every secondary position. Put it all together and this should again be one of the MAC’s toughest defenses.
“We learned how to win some games, now what we need to do is learn how to be a championship football team and we can’t do it unless you got a great defense, let’s face it,” Quinn said. “And that group has really taken itself to another level.”
There are no concerns as far as the kicking specialists go. Pat Clarke was 11 of 15 on field goal attempts last year, making four of 40 yards or longer including a 47-yarder as time expired to beat Miami. Punter Tyler Grassman forced 28 fair catches and put 19 kicks inside the 20 against just three touchbacks. He’ll have his cousin, incoming freshman Corbin Grassman, snapping to him this year.
There are plenty of options in the kick return game, including RBs Campbell, Potts and Murie. Punt returns have been an adventure though, as have both punt and kick coverages. That kickoff return for a TD at Ohio after UB built a quick 14-0 lead was an absolute killer and probably prevented UB’s season from turning around earlier than it did last year.
“I’ve spoken to our team,” Quinn said. “Special teams has to be something that every single player in our program embraces, not just a handful of guys. It needs to be everybody. We have great schemes and they’re very sound and fundamental. …Now what we have to do is perform at that level.”
It seems rare nowadays for a program to return its entire staff, especially at the mid-major level. But Quinn has all his coaches back in the fold, which should only help a team that, this year, could be truly on the verge.