Lou Tepper’s coaching career spans nearly half a century, but last season, his first as defensive coordinator at the University at Buffalo, may have been his most challenging. Implementing his scheme — which is at first glance simplistic yet complex to teach — was not an easy proposition.
“I probably worked more hours last year than any year in my 46 years prior to that,” Tepper said. “It was an exhausting year.”
But as one of the few teams in college football with no coaching turnover, the Bulls have stability among the staff for the first time in years. For the defense, which runs a base 3-4, this means playing fundamentally sound within Tepper’s structure. The offense hopes to run seamlessly in Alex Wood’s multiple, up-tempo, no-huddle attack with an emphasis on the spread.
“We didn’t have any change in personnel and we all got better,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said. “We spent a great deal of time improving what we did last year in terms of our schemes and our structure. We watched thousands and thousands of film clips of last year’s games and our upcoming opponents and things we have to get better at.”
Scoring is an emphasis of improvement — injuries and an inconsistent passing game hindered the Bulls — as is effectiveness inside the 20. UB finished next-to-last in the Mid-American Conference in scoring a year ago (21.2 ppg) and 11th in red-zone offense scoring (69.4 percent).
“We’ll get into all kinds of formations, personnel groups and all that kind of stuff but we’re doing it on the up-tempo swing of things and also spreading the field and no-huddling,” Wood said.
Ohio State and Baylor, the Bulls’ first two opponents, are fast and physical and could overwhelm UB. But a sense of urgency remains. The scheme calls for placing players in position to make plays like moving Branden Oliver from his natural position of tailback into the slot position more so than in the past.
“We’ll move him around without question,” said Wood. “As you play games and get more on film, obviously there’s more exposure so people get a chance to track you a little better and break you down so those are the kinds of things we’re going to keep track of. Self-scout stuff.”
On defense, it’s about embracing Tepper’s concepts. The Bulls don’t have positions that mirror each other but 11 that are unique — which isn’t commonplace in college football. Tepper employs a system where a player plays within a box created to his strengths. A player like senior linebacker Khalil Mack for example, is a pass rusher who can take on tight ends but his role in coverage is limited. Basically, he’s not asked to play a role he’s not good at.
Because the Bulls role play, there are fewer techniques. A player like Mack has more techniques because he will play defensive end at times. The Bulls have what is called a major technique and a minor technique where most systems in the sport will have as many as six.
A major technique for a player like senior end Colby Way would be placing him on the outside edge of a tackle and minor on playing on the inside edge. Way might play his major technique 80 percent of the time and his minor 20.
“We have fewer techniques which allows us more time to work on fundamentals,” Tepper said. “We’ve become, I think, a better fundamental team with more confidence in our techniques. You as an offense may know that, ‘they’re only in these two things,’ but we know them better than you.”
A year ago it was overwhelming for the players. Not now.
“Coach Tepp took it slow with us so we could learn his defense but we mastered the stuff we had in before we started adding on to it,” Way said. “We’re running the same old stuff and working on technique, making sure we’re getting better and getting ready to play.”
Despite the early growing pains, the Bulls ranked second in the MAC in total defense.
“By the end of the year, we started to be more familiar with the routine and what we needed and what was done and fortunately we were blessed that we won some of those games,” Tepper said.
“It’s like night and day. We’re so much more further along. ... When you go in your first year one of the issues are you don’t have many guys who can really give an example to the young guys on what to do in either drills or on the field. Now we have that.”
There’s even time to step away from the game a bit.
“I even got to play racquetball today,” Tepper said. “Last year, there wasn’t time for anything.”