Jeff Quinn chuckled when he heard the stat. So did Khalil Mack and Colby Way.
The University at Buffalo’s pass rush was so effective last season that the Bulls recorded a school record 34 sacks, seven more than the previous high. Even more impressive was that no one in the scheme is an appointed pass rusher, a distinction that will hold true once again. The Bulls did not have any player rank among the country’s top 25 in sacks per game in defensive coordinator Lou Tepper’s base 3-4.
Buffalo poses no defensive bull’s-eye, someone like former Bowling Green defensive end Chris Jones, who recorded 12.5 sacks a year ago. Coordinators create methods to nullify that one player. That’s a challenge against the Bulls.
“It’s a special scheme with Coach Tepper,” said Mack, a senior linebacker. “Anybody can make a play. We have a lot of special players making an impact, especially in the backfield.”
UB’s front seven is rich with stars, with linebackers Mack and Lee Skinner and defensive end Way shining the brightest on a defense expected to be one of the best in the Mid-American Conference. UB’s blitz packages vary from game-to-game but many of the Bulls plays were coverage sacks as the secondary ranked No. 2 in the MAC behind Bowling Green in pass defense.
“Our coverage was just too good and the quarterback had to sit in the pocket for a long time and then one of us could break free,” Way said. “Having players like Khalil out there, that makes people want to double team him and it makes people want to focus on the outside. Inside guys like me, Kristjan Sokoli, Dalton Barksdale and Max Perisse can break free and get sacks in there, too. The one-on-one matchups are what you have to win to get sacks.”
The Bulls have dismissed the notion that 3-4 down linemen take on blockers to allow the linebackers to be the playmakers. Way and the departed Steven Means combined for 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss last season so both thrived by playing within the system. Duplicating last season’s numbers, however, might be difficult without Means.
“When we had Means on the edge and Mack on the edge it was very similar to having Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy on the edge,” said Tepper, who coached Rice and Hardy at Illinois in the ’90s. “It’s rare that defenses have two alarming edge rushers. This year, it’s about can we develop a guy on the other edge?”
Nine players had at least half a sack in 2012 and five of those players have returned, including Jake Stockman, who finished with 2.5 sacks in only five starts. They also have junior college transfer Tedroy Lynch, who will back up Beau Bachtelle at defensive end. Lynch, who registered 9.5 sacks at Lackawanna (Pa.) College last season, will serve as a third-down pass rusher.
Another option is redshirt freshman linebacker Waylon Fink of Greensburg, Pa., who had 15 sacks and 26.5 tackles for a loss as a senior at Greensburg Salem High School. There’s also true freshman linebacker Brandon Crawford from Madison, Fla., a first-team all-state selection who finished with 13 sacks at Madison County High. Because of his size (6-foot-5, 300-pounds) and long arms, Sokoli, who started one game in 2012 at nose guard, has the potential for sacks.
“Every year you set that bar and we set the bar last year,” Quinn said. “This is a new team, they’re going to be able to create their own identity on the field. … We’re going to be able to put on some pressure and we need to. If we want to be a great defense, and I know we have the ingredients and the capability to do that, we have to get that kind of production.”