Anyone paying attention to college football last season knows about Khalil Mack’s dramatic rise from diamond-in-the-rough prospect at the University at Buffalo to NFL first-round draft pick. ¶ In fact, UB saw a lot of players make great leaps forward in their development last season. ¶ “Last year I did not have one player in my linebacker room who had another Division I offer,” said UB defensive coordinator Lou Tepper. ¶ “So I had three bulls, all of whom were walk-ons that earned a scholarship,” Tepper said, referring to weak-side inside linebackers. “I had three mikes – middle linebackers – that had one scholarship offer (to UB). At rush linebacker, I had one – Mack – who had a I-AA offer. Jarrett Franklin, a freshman, had no I-AA offer. He had a Division II offer.” ¶ That lightly recruited corps helped UB field the second-ranked defense in the Mid-American Conference, which was a key to the team’s 8-5 season. ¶ UB believes it has the ball rolling on its football program. It seems poised to record its second straight winning season this fall. ¶ Is UB ready to be a perennial power in the Mid-American Conference? The next two or three years will tell whether coach Jeff Quinn has brought in enough talent to win consistently. ¶ One thing is sure: Quinn & Co. are doing a good job of developing the players on hand.
Taking the talent from Point A to Points X, Y or Z is important for every college program, but it’s especially key at UB, where there are some recruiting disadvantages that aren’t going away:
• It’s in New York State, which is not the mother lode of high school football players.
• It has high academic standards, arguably the highest in the Mid-American Conference.
Quinn is not likely to “Barry Switzer” the competition by overwhelming it with raw athletic ability.
UB better be hitting on all cylinders in its player development side of the operation. Quinn, entering his fifth season at UB, seems to be doing just that.
“We provide the very best education,” Quinn said. “So I’m already bringing in a young man who values his education, and as a high achiever will get up and go to class, do what he’s supposed to do.
“He’s going to hold himself accountable, therefore he’s going to be able to hold others accountable,” Quinn said. “The more you are around high-achieving people, you always seem to have much greater results.”
Mack came to UB after playing just one year of high school football in Florida and weighed just 210 pounds. He left a chiseled 250.
The Bulls’ strength and conditioning program has keyed the development of many starters.
Defensive end Colby Way went from 230 to 293 over the course of his career and as a senior last season was a third-team all-conference pick. Current senior nose tackle Kristjan Sokoli was 225 as a freshman and now weighs 300. Sophomore linebacker Franklin, who is taking Mack’s spot, has gone from 190 to 218 in the past year. Promising sophomore tight end Mason Schreck has gone from 225 to 247. Starting defensive end Brandon Crawford went from 230 in high school to 275 now as a sophomore. There are many examples.
“I would rather bring in a young man who has already the speed, the quickness, the flexibility, the change of direction, who may be a little slighter and lighter,” Quinn said.
Quinn refers to past experience as an aide at Central Michigan, where he helped successfully recruit current NFL stars Joe Staley and J.J. Watt.
“Joe Staley was a tall, lean 220-pound kid who became a 300-pounder,” Quinn said. “At 220, he ran a 4.7 in the 40. At 300, ran a 4.7. We recruited J.J. Watt at Central Michigan. He was another tall, lean body that I knew could get up.” (Watt’s stock improved to where he transferred to Wisconsin before his sophomore season).
The strength and conditioning coordinator is every bit as important as the offensive and defensive coordinators. UB had an outstanding one the past four years in Zach Duval, who left in January to go to the University of Wyoming. He was replaced in March by West Seneca native Greg Pyszczynski.
“As a young player, they really helped me put on weight, and they did a great job teaching us the right way to put on good weight,” said Way. “Coach Duval was always there pushing us, making us want to be better. And he had strong support.
“The guys around him, Craig Timmons and Joe Ferrara, were really good too,” Way said, referring to assistants. “You knew you were going to get pushed and motivated to do your best.”
All quality college programs have winning fitness programs. The Bulls have an eight-week winter strength and conditioning program. They have a four-week spring practice period. They have an eight-week strength program in June and July before preseason practice starts in August.
Players who are trying to gain or lose are taught to count calories and protein intake. The average adult male needs about 56 grams of protein and roughly 2,500 calories a day.
“I counted calories for a while, but I mostly counted protein,” Way said. “I’d try to get at least 200 grams a day, and that’s probably a little lower than what I should have been.”
“I had a little diet app on my phone to keep track,” Sokoli said. “I was averaging over 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day. It was six meals a day.
“There’s been times where I feel like I have no life, because I have to focus so much on eating and making sure I eat right,” Sokoli said. “The next thing you know, you realize all you’re doing is homework, cooking and eating.”
Informed of that statement, Quinn beamed: “Perfect! What else is there.”
UB’s 102-man preseason roster included 36 players from New York State. There were 1,236 players on the preseason rosters of the other 12 MAC teams. How many were from New York State?
UB’s coaches choose to see the upside in their under-represented home territory.
“New York isn’t long on Division I signees,” acknowledges Tepper. “But when I coached at LSU, you recruited guys who had played football since they were 8 years old. When they got into high school they were playing one sport. They lifted continually. There was very little basketball, lacrosse, baseball.
“Whereas we get guys who have been playing numerous sports,” Tepper said. “We’ve got lacrosse players, basketball. But the warm states and some of the Big Ten programs, the guys they take are closer to their max than the guys we take. The guys we take are farther away because they’ve done so many other things. So their ability to develop is very strong. They can get much better than they were in high school.”
Quinn has assembled a veteran coaching staff that is strong on fundamentals.
Tepper is in his 48th year of coaching. He was a head coach for 17 of those seasons, including six at Illinois.
Offensive coordinator Alex Wood is in his 36th year. He was running backs coach for the Miami Hurricanes when they won national titles in 1989 and ’91, and he spent six years as a position coach in the NFL.
Running backs coach Matt Simon served under a legend (Don James), was a head coach (at North Texas) and was an aide for two NFL teams (the Ravens and Chargers).
The Bulls lost defensive line coach Jappy Oliver to Virginia in January. Quinn replaced him with Chris Cosh, a veteran of 29 years. Cosh has coached under Nick Saban, Lou Holtz and Bill Snyder.
To his credit, Quinn has felt secure enough to hire strongly credentialed aides.
“All four of my defensive coaches have been head coaches and/or coordinators at previous places,” Quinn said.
Quinn had a big hole to fill this year in the strength and conditioning department. When Duval left, Quinn hired Buddy Morris, who had spent 19 years at the University of Pittsburgh. But Morris left just seven weeks later to become the head strength coach with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
It was a problem. Quinn relied on his connections. His first call was to Notre Dame, not surprising given his 21-year working history with Irish coach Brian Kelly. Quinn also previously worked with Notre Dame’s head strength coach (Paul Longo) and assistant strength coach (Dave Andrews).
“Dave calls me and says, ‘Quinner, I’ve got just the guy for you, and you won’t believe this, he’s already from Buffalo,’” Quinn said.
Pyszczynski is only 29 and never has held a head strength coach job. But he worked as an aide at Eastern Michigan for four years and spent one year at Illinois, working with Andrews, who gave a strong recommendation.
“I want a football coach at that spot,” Quinn said. “I need a guy who knows how to take what we do in the weight room and translate it out on the field. You can have all the strongest guys in America in the weight room, but if it doesn’t translate to keeping guys healthy and durable and winning, what good is it?
“Greg is a rising star,” Quinn said. “He’s a leading expert on concussion prevention and neck injuries. He spoke to the national convention on that subject. The kids love him.”
In the hallway outside the team meeting room in UB Stadium are four pillars. Quinn uses them to highlight what he calls the “Four Pillars of Success” – Physical, Intellectual, Social and Spiritual.
It’s a theme Kelly and Quinn developed when they were at Division II Grand Valley State together in the 1990s.
The “intelligence pillar” is an example of UB trying to turn a challenge into a strength. On one hand, admission standards are tough. On the other, smart players tend to improve better than dumb players.
“In the end, it is on the player,” Sokoli said. “The coach puts on the strength and nutrition plan and emphasizes the importance, but the players got to follow through. There’s no way they can follow you around and feed you every single meal.”
UB reports its cumulative team grade-point average has risen from 2.2 in the fall of 2010 to 2.86 last spring, the best since the program went Division I in 1999.
Quinn on the social development pillar: “You are a representative of yourself, your family, our program and this university. You need to represent all of those with class and distinction. You’re in the public eye. Understand how important that is.
“Community service is part of the spiritual pillar. We’re not talking about religion,” Quinn said. “We’re talking about having an altruistic approach to life. Treat you, me, others as you would like to be treated. Be others-centered.”
Ideally, team-wide activities related to those pillars create a sense of togetherness.
“The moment that stands out the most in my career,” said Way, “is when we were sitting in our end-of-the-year banquet last December and it got announced that we were going to the Idaho Potato Bowl. That was a great experience, because it was something we’d worked for over five years with the senior class. It’s not a personal thing. But it’s a team game, and that’s the moment that stands out the most.”
UB has the development framework in place to repeat that bowl experience in the coming years. If the players are good enough, it will happen.