BOISE, Idaho — It’s customary for bowl hosts to shower the participating teams with gifts commemorating the experience. The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl took it a step beyond. Organizers invited the players into a hotel ballroom filled with merchandise this week, gave them a budget and told them to go shopping.
“It’s called a Gift Suite actually,” University at Buffalo senior running back Brandon Murie said. “I got a pair of Ray-Ban aviators. I’m going to give those to my mom, and I got my dad a watch. They had everything. They had speakers, TVs, everything.”
“I grabbed a portable speaker,” senior cornerback Najja Johnson said. “I’m going to give it to one of my brothers for their birthday. I grabbed a sandwich maker too, to make some paninis. Going to work on my chef skills.”
“I picked two watches, a male watch and a female watch,” senior wideout Fred Lee said. “I have to decide whether to give it to my mom, my sister or my girlfriend.”
Junior center Trevor Sales opted for the 25-inch high-definition TV. “I didn’t have use for a lot of stuff but I figured a TV, there’s always use for that,” he said. “We’re guys, there’s always sports on. It was pretty sweet. I said, ‘I’m going to take it.”
The week has been chock full of activities. The teams had a charity bowling competition Tuesday (San Diego State won), went go-kart driving on Wednesday and have been treated to dinners every night. Retired coach great Bobby Bowden was scheduled as the featured speaker at a Friday breakfast.
“It’s been pretty amazing honestly,” Murie said. “They treat us really nice. It kind of feels like Buffalo here. It’s Buffalo with a mountain and no wind. It’s pretty crazy. The people here are so nice. Like, everybody’s so nice. It’s insane.
“They take care of us well. We had prime rib last night for dinner. They’re just doing everything they can to make sure we’re having a good time.”
“It’s been a blessing,” Johnson said. “I never in my life thought I’d be in Boise, Idaho. But I’ve had a great time here. The people are great. These are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It reminds me of my town down south. Everybody speaks to you when you walk down the street. It’s been a good time.”
He was born Dubois Ross but UB’s true freshman wideout has answered to Boise for more than a decade. So, naturally, everybody’s telling him he should feel right at home at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
“I’ve always thought since I was younger there’s a city out here named after me,” joked Ross, who hails from Bethlehem, Pa. “So I always wanted to go check it out ever since I was young. And now that I’m here it’s amazing. It’s a great experience, the bowl committee’s doing an awesome job and I can’t wait to get on the field on Saturday.”
All the activities surrounding a bowl can easily distract players from being in the right mind frame for the game itself. Bulls coach Jeff Quinn said he doesn’t sense his team is straying from the primary task.
“This group is a very tight, close-knit group and they understand the reason why we’re out here and they understand the importance of the preparation part of getting ready to perform,” Quinn said. “They’ve done a great job. Wednesday we had a nice solid practice outside, again this morning. Guys are locked in.”
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay projects Khalil Mack going No. 8 overall in the NFL draft to Minnesota, a pick ahead of the Buffalo Bills current draft spot. McShay has Mack the No. 2 linebacker behind UCLA’s Anthony Barr and ahead of the Butkus Award winner, C.J. Mosley of Alabama.
Here’s what McShay had to say on a conference call Thursday:
“To me, he’s a top-10 player in this draft. I’m kind of excited to see how the process goes. If he winds up having the pre-draft process that I think he can have, then I think he’ll wind up somewhere, like I said, in those top 10 picks.
“He’s such a versatile player. In studying his tape, he can play sideline to sideline versus the run. He has great instincts. He has the ability to get up the field and get after the quarterback, and he also can drop and does a really good job for his type of player in underneath coverage. I think he’s probably the second- or third-best linebacker in this class behind Anthony Barr, and I put him right there with CJ Moseley. They’re just different players.
“It’s amazing that a player is going to be drafted so high coming from that Buffalo program. I’m just glad everyone got to see him, at least against Ohio State, and the kind of impact he can make against the big boys.”
Mack, the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year, has been named a first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated, CBSSports and the Football Writers Association of America.