The fresh faces for the University at Buffalo football team had an opportunity to develop some chemistry and make their cases for more prominent roles this season on Saturday.
The Bulls held an intra-squad scrimmage as the work continued to pinpoint replacements for a deep senior class. For head coach Jeff Quinn and his staff, it was the first chance to watch the young players react in a game atmosphere and continue the evaluation process.
“What the coaching staff really wants to do after week one is put our team in game-like situation and really just learn about our personnel a little bit more,” Quinn said. “As coaches, we spend all week teaching, and these kids are learning and they get to come out and apply that. I wanted to see them come together as a complete unit on both sides of the ball.”
The team has no shortage of quality players to replace. While the program graduated all-conference players Khalil Mack, Naija Johnson and Colby Way on defense, the offense had nearly as much turnover.
Gone is the program’s all-time leading rusher, Branden Oliver. Joining him in post-grad life are receivers Fred Lee and Alex Neutz, who accounted for more than half of the team’s receiving yards in 2013. Saturday’s scrimmage featured a few encouraging signs from the players tabbed to step into those now vacant positions.
The first-team offense, led by returning starting quarterback Joe Licata, stalled on the first drive but mustered plenty of offense after that.
On the second drive, junior running back Anthone Taylor broke free for about a 40-yard touchdown run. The play was nearly identical to one that had occurred in a drill the day before.
“We actually practiced that all week,” Taylor said. “Yesterday we happened to do the same check and happened to have the same result. I saw it today and hit it the same way. Coach always talks about practicing something how you want to do it in the game.”
On the third drive, the offense drove methodically down the field with a mix of run plays and short passes. While in the red zone, Licata threw a pass up to junior receiver Ron Willoughby, who made an impressive grab. However, he was called for offensive pass interference on the play.
On the next play, Willoughby made a nearly identical catch over cornerback Cortney Lester.
“I had Cortney beat, but I stuck my arm out. It’s kind of a habit that I have to break,” Willoughby said. “I knew that I had to make a play because I had cost my team 15 yards. So, Joe just threw the ball up there. It was a great pass.”
Willoughby believes he and the other skill position players are more than ready to replace the production that led UB to a bowl game in 2013.
“There were great receivers last year, but we knew they were leaving,” Willoughby said. “We knew we’d have to step up. We have a great quarterback, a great game plan and we know we can make plays every day.”
The second and third teams also got plenty of work. The highlight of the second-team’s day was a 50-yard catch and run touchdown by redshirt freshman receiver Jacob Martinez on a perfect pass over the middle from junior quarterback Tony Daniel.
Two-a-day practices will begin Monday.