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Pros know Bulls have big game

Josh Thomas and Peter Bittner are University at Buffalo football players with NFL aspirations. A few years ago, that didn't seem possible.

But times have changed, and so have pro scouts' opinion of UB.

There are five Bulls currently on NFL rosters. Defensive end Trevor Scott has been a major contributor in Oakland the last three seasons. Jamey Richard has started at center and guard during his first three seasons with Indianapolis and played in last year's Super Bowl. Defensive back Mike Newton appeared in the last 12 games for the Colts this season after being signed off the practice squad.

Wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt flashed his skills for the Bills after he moved up from the practice squad late this season. And of course, the entire nation has been introduced to Green Bay running back James Starks and his postseason exploits.

Meanwhile, quarterback Drew Willy just signed a futures contract with the Jets, giving him a chance to make that team next season.

The recent success of former UB players has given hope to every Bull with dreams of playing on Sundays.

"They definitely paved the way," Thomas said. "What those guys are doing shows that UB is a place where you can get to the next level. It definitely gives you a lot of hope."

The increased attention on UB football has opened the door for departing seniors to play in postseason all-star games attended by all 32 NFL teams.

Thomas spent the past week in Orlando, Fla., playing in the East-West Shrine Game. He also has been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next month. Bittner is on his way to St. George, Utah, for the Dixie Gridiron Classic, which will be played Feb. 5.

Thomas finished with four tackles, one pass breakup and recovered a fumble on the first play from scrimmage to set up a touchdown for the East team, which beat the West, 25-8, Saturday.

Thomas said he got good feedback from several NFL teams after holding his own against players from higher-profile programs during practices.

"I came into the week confident," he said. "The first day of practice I made two big hits and everybody on the defense got excited and shouted 'Buffalo, Buffalo, UB!' It's a feeling of everybody respecting where you come from."

Bittner was a late addition to the Dixie Gridiron Classic, but the important thing is the Williamsville North graduate will be there.

"It's a great opportunity for me to go out in front of NFL scouts and show them what I can do," said Bittner, who started a school-record 50 consecutive games. "I want to make the most of it."

UB has come a long way since its return to Division I-A (now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision) in 1999. The turning point was the arrival of coach Turner Gill, who brought in better recruits and got improvement from players he inherited.

It all culminated in the 2008 MAC championship season and the school's first bowl game appearance. Thomas and Bittner were joined by Starks, Roosevelt and Newton on that squad.

The NFL generally scouts every college, but it is mostly attracted to winning programs because they produce the best players. The better UB got, the more pro teams descended on the campus.

"I remember five years ago when I got here, we might have a couple of scouts here and there at practice," Bittner said. "Throughout the years, the numbers just kept increasing. This past season it's hard to think of a practice that an NFL scout wasn't at. Having scouts there more than they used to be definitely helps everyone."

It has been said that if a player is good enough the NFL will find him. UB has suddenly become fertile ground for the league to harvest.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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