Here’s an adage to keep in mind for the University at Buffalo football season: The guys farther away from the ball are easier to replace than the guys close to the ball.
One could look at the statistics and say UB has lost 76 percent of its offense from last season. UB produced 5,131 yards, and 3,896 left with last year’s senior class.
Those statistics fib, at the least.
UB returns the guy who touches the ball on every play – junior quarterback Joe Licata – along with all five starting offensive linemen.
The guys farthest away from the ball – the running backs and receivers – are mostly new, but there is talent on hand, which is why UB isn’t crying poverty this summer.
“Everyone wants to talk about the guys we lost, and they were phenomenal for us,” Licata said. “But what they really did is taught the younger guys how to win. … There definitely are more options at this point than there were last year, and there’s a lot less pressure on me to force the ball to some guys. We’re so much more deep now.”
On the other side of the ball, you’d think defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, the 68-year-old gridiron swami entering his 48th coaching season, would be crying in his coffee mug over the loss of Khalil Mack to the Oakland Raiders.
Think again. We’ll see what tune he’s singing come mid-October, but as of now, Tepper says:
“First of all, I loved Khalil. I miss him a lot, just in terms of his character and his friendship. But we’re going to be fine. We’ve prepared people to take his place. The defense has chosen the ‘No-Name’ defense as their moniker. I tell you what: I have a great group. I don’t have a jerk in my room. They’re good students, they’re good people, they play hard together.”
Hear him, UB fans?
“We’re going to be fine.”
All signs, indeed, are pointing to a fine, entertaining, winning season for the Bulls in the fifth year of coach Jeff Quinn’s tenure. It should aided by the easiest schedule in the Mid-American Conference. (We can hear Blue & White Fund members saying, “When you’ve never had back-to-back winning seasons in Division I, don’t trifle me with scheduling details.”)
Will it be better than fine? Will it be outstanding? Will UB be one of the five best teams in the 13-team MAC and thereby go to a bowl game for a second straight year? That’s going to be a challenge. It will depend on how well those young guys away from the ball develop.
Here’s a capsule preview of the season:
Players to Watch
No. 16 Joe Licata: The Williamsville South product is 11-6 as a starter and is the No. 2 returning quarterback in the MAC in terms of both passing yards per game (217) and passing efficiency (132.7). Licata was recruited by Harvard. He’s smart, makes good decisions and is an excellent leader.
No. 8, Boise Ross: A true sophomore who has speed and smoothness. He’s a former first-team all-stater from Pennsylvania who caught 13 passes last year. Should be the No. 1 wideout.
No. 1 Anthone Taylor: He opens the season as the head of the committee of running backs. A junior from Ohio, Taylor is a no-nonsense, north-south runner.
Rushing game: UB ranked No. 5 in the MAC in rushing behind Bo Oliver, who averaged 115 yards a game. Oliver left for the San Diego Chargers. UB should be OK with the combined talents of Taylor, Jordan Johnson and Devin Campbell. Watch out for Johnson, the former two-time state player of the year from Sweet Home High. He bulked up last year to double as a fullback but he’s down from 233 to 216 and could wind up getting the most carries of the trio. Campbell, a junior from Youngstown, Ohio, is fast and versatile and will be a weapon on third downs. He rushed for 502 yards in 2012. The trio must prove it can get the tough yards, as Oliver did.
The Bulls’ offensive line has combined for 100 starts. It relies on a lot of zone blocking and has a stout middle three led by 312-pound senior center Trevor Sales, a third-year starter. Senior left guard Andre Davis, a 318-pounder from Maryvale, has 37 starts. Junior right guard Robert Blodgett, 311 pounds, started the last nine games last season.
Passing game: Gone are the 61 catches of Alex Neutz and 58 of Fred Lee. Ross starts at split end. Senior Devon Hughes, a speedster from Georgia, starts at flanker. He has 48 career catches. Neither of them is real big. But wideout John Dunmore, a senior from Syracuse, is well built. And Marcus McGill, a junior from Rochester, is even more rugged, at 6-1, 222. He can help the run game blocking in a spread formation. Watch for big, 6-4 possession receiver Ron Willoughby from Ohio to force his way onto the field. He’s had a fine preseason. Red-shirt freshman Jacob Martinez, a fast guy from Florida, may get some time in the slot, too.
“There’s a lot more numbers there than we’ve had in the past,” Quinn said. “You’re not going to see one or two. You’re going to see probably six, seven, eight guys, potentially, getting in and giving us a lot of solid plays downfield.”
UB has two 6-5 tight ends, junior Matt Weiser and sophomore Mason Schreck, who look pretty good. The Bulls may run two-TE sets a third of the time. It has been five years since a UB tight end managed even 200 receiving yards. That streak should end this year.
The Bulls allowed only 20 sacks last season. Both tackles are 6-7. Jake Silas, a senior from Michigan, shifts from right tackle to left tackle. Right tackle John Kling, from Depew High, took over as a starter midway through last season.
Fast Fact: UB plays up-tempo much of the time and no-huddle virtually all of the time. The Bulls averaged 74.2 plays a game last season, second most in the MAC, behind only Northern Illinois (76.6).
Players to Watch
No. 90 Kristjan Sokoli: He has a tough job as the nose tackle, playing head-up over the center. At 6-6, he has the length to create separation and force plays one direction or another.
No. 29 Adam Redden: He might have the toughest job, as the “big safety” on the wide side of the field, in a hybrid linebacker role. Redden, a senior from Amherst, was a great player for St. Francis High. Look for him to rush the passer, too. He’s a fierce baller.
No. 36 Jarrett Franklin: This true sophomore from Missouri takes Mack’s pass-rush linebacker job. He’s 6-foot, 217. Don’t expect Khalil. But he needs to make some plays.
Run front: Defensive ends Colby Way (293) and Beau Bachtelle (273) are gone, replaced by true sophomore Brandon Crawford (275) and senior Tedroy Lynch (250). Add in Mack’s departure and the front is considerably smaller. The Bulls will have to compensate with speed and assignment-sound football. If more beef is needed, Dalton Barksdale (293) and Chris Ford (315) are on the second D-line. Joining Franklin as the linebackers in Tepper’s 3-3-5 defense are senior Lee Skinner at MLB and senior Jake Stockman at the “bull” spot (inside on the weak side). Skinner finished second to Mack in tackles each of the last three seasons.
The Bulls will rely on safeties Redden and Okezie Alozie (217) to play tough. Alozie defends the short side of the field.
UB was fourth in the MAC in run defense last year, allowing 167 yards a game. A top-six finish would be good.
Pass defense: Tepper is not a big blitzer, but he may have to be creative in sending his four-man rushes. Franklin and Redden will get plenty of rush chances. Crawford shows rush ability. He had a nice sack in the Potato Bowl. Kyril Threats, a junior linebacker from Canisius High and ECC, has started to come on in practice.
The back end loses all-MAC corner Najja Johnson plus two starting safeties. The top corner, Cortney Lester, enters his third year as a starter and should be fine. The other corner is junior Marquis Baker, and slot corner Dwellie Striggles brings experience. Senior Witney Sherry takes over as deep safety. All four of those DBs are from Florida. A concern: Can they avoid allowing “cheap deep” completions and avoid penalties?
Three true freshmen DBs have shown some promise in preseason. They are Brandon Williams and Terrance Wilson, both from Georgia, and Ryan Williamson of Ohio. We’ll see if they’re needed or they can be red-shirted.
Fast fact: UB held opposing MAC passers to 48.9 percent completions last year, best in conference. That will be tough to duplicate.
Patrick Clarke is back for a third season as place-kicker. He finished strong last year, making 9 of his last 11, including two from 50-plus yards. Tyler Grassman is more athletic than your average punter, and his cousin, Corbin, is back as long-snapper. UB has a good kickoff returner in Campbell, who ranked fifth in the MAC and had a 96-yarder for a TD. Campbell and McGill are the top two punt returners. UB hasn’t returned a punt for a TD since 2002, the longest drought in FBS.
The offense should be pretty good thanks to a veteran QB, a veteran O-line and plenty of skill-position talent. The defense must prove it’s stout enough and has enough playmakers to get off the field on third down. The schedule offers room for error. UB plays two lower-division schools (Duquesne and Norfolk State) for the first time. Only one of those wins would count toward bowl eligibility. UB also does not have to face Northern Illinois or Toledo, the top two teams in the MAC West. The MAC gets five bowl bids. Northern Illinois, Toledo and Bowling Green look like the top three. That could leave Akron, Ohio, Central Michigan and UB fighting for two bowl berths. UB gets Akron and CMU at home.
Our prediction: 7-5.