University at Buffalo football coach Jeff Quinn was kidding Tuesday that the best decision he may have made all season was in taking the fourth-quarter wind in the game against Miami. The Bulls ended up with the last possession and won on Patrick Clarke’s 47-yard field goal.
The best decision involving the UB football program took place in the athletic department’s administrative offices, when new director of athletics Danny White bucked convention and dealt Quinn a three-year contract extension that leaves him in charge through the 2017 season.
Judging from public reaction, Quinn hasn’t endeared himself to the UB fan base. It’s not just the 9-27 compiled over his first three seasons. It also has to do with Quinn’s public-appearance persona, which is identical to his football persona, which is steeped in mantras and motivational outpourings sometimes delivered in twisted syntax. “Used-car salesman” is how more than one reader has described the coach, from which one might infer he comes across as less than genuine.
Quinn does himself a disservice with his public approach because when he steps outside the role of “football coach” he’s both down to earth and engaging. He cares about his players. He pushes them academically and tracks their progress. And he’s confident enough in his abilities that his current staff of assistants is awash with experienced coaches, many of whom have had head coaching jobs. Head coaches who operate out of fear for their livelihood tend to shy from hiring those who could be construed as possible replacements. Quinn has put the program first.
UB’s 4-8 season might disappoint but the severity of the schedule when sized up back in August made five victories look like the best-case scenario. No one in the MAC played a more challenging conference schedule, and the non-conference slate was equally rugged. Star running back Branden Oliver was out half the season. The passing game struggled until Joe Licata took over for an injured Alex Zordich, although it should be noted the schedule eased at that point.
Defensively, the Bulls had one of their best seasons in Division I-A, holding the last six opponents and eight on the season to 24 points or fewer. The Bulls won a road game for the first time in two years and strung three victories for the first time since the championship season of 2008. Most signs point to UB moving forward on solid ground.
Here’s a look at what was accomplished in 2012 and what needs to be addressed from here:
The Bulls knew they had one of the MAC’s premier runners in Oliver. When injuries limited him to seven games they found a solid backup in true freshman Devin Campbell. Then there’s sophomore James Potts, who broke off that 49-yard touchdown run against Morgan State before his knee went out. And sophomore Anthone Taylor, who missed the season injured after showing great promise as a freshman.
That still leaves Jordan Johnson, the former Sweet Home star who redshirted this past season. The Bulls look like they’re set at running back for at least three or four years.
The progress made this season came from a team with 12 seniors, only six of whom played on a regular basis. Center Trevor Sales, tackle Andre Davis and guard Jasen Carlson will be the returning nucleus of an offensive line that met its goal of 2,000 yards in team rushing. Redshirt freshman Licata has four starts under his belt at quarterback. The entire defensive secondary is back. Linebacker Lee Skinner and defensive end Colby Way have all-MAC potential.
The special teams, a disaster the first half of the season, made an about-face. Defensive back Adam Redden partially blocked a pair of punts. Kicker Patrick Clarke went 8 of 10 on field goal attempts between 30 and 49 yards, including the winner against Miami. Freshman punter Tyler Grassman, erratic a good part of the season, had an encouraging final day in harsh conditions against Bowling Green.
1. Khalil Mack has been rated as high as the fifth-best junior outside linebacker in this year’s draft class by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. He’ll probably go in the later rounds of the draft if he declares. At worst, he’d sign as a free agent and be in an NFL training camp come summer. If Mack returns and has a season anything like this one, it’s a good bet he goes in the top three rounds and improves his financial security as well his chances of sticking. He hasn’t given any indication which way he’s leaning — or being leaned.
2. Quarterback Collin Michael, one of last year’s prized recruits, red-shirted while running the scout team. He’s 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and possesses above-average arm strength. The question is whether he has enough of a handle on the offense to rise to the status of serious starting contender in the spring and/or summer.
“I think that’s where Mondays really benefit these kids,” Quinn said at Tuesday’s season-ending news conference. “When we come back after a game we go back out on the field and we practice our true freshmen with some returning players that run our system of offense. It’s our calls, our signals.
“And he’s handled that well. … He’s a big time player and I can’t wait to see where he can take himself and help this team.”
3. Defensive end Steven Means was just about as disruptive a force as any defensive player in the MAC over the final half of his senior season. He finished third in tackles, third in sacks and second in tackles for losses. He won’t be easily replaced. Junior Beau Bachtelle, a juco transfer, and sophomore Dalton Barksdale both saw time this year, and one of them figures to slide into the big shoes left by Means.
The Main Concern
Junior wideout Alex Neutz has caught 15 touchdown passes the last two seasons. No one else has caught more than two in that span. Neutz hauled in 65 passes this season and missed a game because of injury. No other wideout on the roster had more than 23 receptions.
Quinn noted that Neutz is a deserving primary target and the other wideouts have performed well in other aspects of the position, such as blocking. That’s all well and good, but UB needs to latch onto a solid complement to Neutz as Brett Hamlin was to Naaman Roosevelt. It looms as Priority No. 1 heading into 2013 and the opener at — gulp — Ohio State.