More times than not when a mid-major hires a new football coach, the switch results in sweeping changes of personnel and culture, changes that require time to take hold. Turnarounds within a season or two are rare. Rebuilds covering three or four years are more the norm. The University at Buffalo, in its fourth season under Jeff Quinn, is at the point where expectations rise.
There’s more than the length of Quinn’s tenure behind the notion that UB is primed for a major upswing. Just look at the fifth-year talent – remnants of the Turner Gill era – back for one final year.
Linebacker Khalil Mack put the NFL on hold last spring, looms as a potential 2014 first-round pick and is within reasonable reach of NCAA Division I-A career records for forced fumbles and tackles for loss. He’s on the watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus, Bronko Nagurski and Rotary Lombardi awards.
Running back Branden “Bo” Oliver set the school single-season rushing record as a sophomore and went for more than 800 yards last year despite missing five games with an injury. The Maxwell and Doak Walker awards have him on their watch lists.
Wideout Alex Neutz, who received a place on the Biletnikoff watch list, is coming off a 1,015-yard, 11-touchdown campaign. Those numbers rank second in UB Division I history.
Cornerback Najja Johnson topped the Mid-American Conference with five interceptions last season and received preseason billing for the Jim Thorpe Award.
Never, not even during the Drew Willy-James Starks-Naaman Roosevelt championship run, have UB players been so widely recognized heading into a season. But will it translate into victories?
The Bulls made a one-game improvement in Quinn’s second and third seasons, jumping from two wins to three, then three wins to four. But five victories in 2013 will neither fulfill expectations nor justify the extension through 2017 Quinn received after winning three of last season’s final four starts.
Literally speaking, the stars have aligned on the field. Figuratively speaking, they’re in sync off the field as well. UB’s Mid-American Conference schedule is more favorable on two counts – powerhouse Northern Illinois is off the crossover schedule and replaced by Eastern Michigan, and games against two of the East’s three preseason favorites (Ohio and Bowling Green) are at home.
Toss in a play-down non-conference game against Stony Brook and a play-up against highly susceptible Connecticut and the six wins needed to become bowl-eligible can be had. Not that the Bulls are geared to settle.
“That team last year saw a way to win some key games, but this year’s team needs to learn how to win a championship,” Quinn said. “And that’s the mind-set of those players in there.”
One game looms as especially important in UB’s bid for an East title – Nov. 5 against Ohio. The Bobcats yet again have the MAC’s most favorable crossover schedule on paper, with Central Michigan at home and Eastern Michigan on the road. The other top vote-getters in the East preseason poll (UB, Bowling Green and Kent) all play a crossover against one of the two favorites in the West (Northern Illinois or Toledo). As a result, gaining the tiebreaker advantage over Ohio could prove pivotal in UB’s title quest.
Here’s how the Bulls stack up in Year Four under Quinn:
Homegrown quarterback Joe Licata took over for the final four games of last season, won three of them and held off Alex Zordich to retain the job in the spring. The last time the Bulls have opened a campaign with a starter who has won a game in Quinn’s system? Never. Eliminating that uncertainty might explain why camp has had a different, more purposeful feel this year.
Licata managed the offense well for the most part and that’ll be his role again, especially during the first half of the season. UB often displayed a pistol formation during camp and showed some personnel groupings aimed at utilizing a wealth of running backs.
For instance, Devin Campbell, Oliver’s primary backup last year, will become a bigger part of the passing game and in some cases line up in the slot. It’s a compelling move given his good hands, running ability and the need to punish defenses for overplaying Neutz.
The tight end position also intrigues. Senior Jimmy Gordon might be the best all-purpose player at the position but redshirt freshman Mason Schreck has loads of talent and speed after the catch. In a nutshell, Quinn and offensive coordinator Alex Wood have options.
“Coach Wood, my entire offensive staff, myself, spent a great deal of time talking about how we can get certain personnel on the field and mix them in and rotate without compromising tempo, because we still want to move quickly to the line of scrimmage without bringing in and out a lot of players,” Quinn said. “There’s a little give and take there but I think what our entire team sees is there’s a lot of potential weapons on that offensive side.”
More weapons won’t make for a change in primary focus. Oliver remains The Man and you can put him down for at least 25 carries a game. His success will be tied in part to the successes of two new starters on the right side of the line – guard Dillon Guy and tackle Jake Silas. The left side remains intact, with Andre Davis at tackle, Jasen Carlson at guard and Trevor Sales in the middle. There’s unproven depth behind the five starters but it doesn’t hurt that senior Fred Lee might be the MAC’s best blocking receiver.
It took the unit half a season to acclimate to Lou Tepper’s schemes last season and buy in to his demands for relentless, all-out pursuit. Once that happened, once everybody found their comfort zone, the Bulls went on to become the MAC’s second-rated defense overall and against the pass. Expectations are high again with a starter or occasional starter returning at every position except left end, where Beau Bachtelle takes over for current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Steven Means.
Once again, the Bulls will employ a 3-3 base with Adam Redden or Okezie Alozie doubling as linebacker/defensive back.
“We’re unique in that we are a 3-3 team,” Tepper said. “There’s 126 major schools and to my knowledge there are three 3-3 teams. Not that our scheme’s better than anybody else’s, I don’t mean that, but it’s a little like getting ready for the wishbone. If you’ve got five days to do it, we gain an advantage.”
Opposing offenses will again game plan for Mack, the most disruptive force in the conference. That should open up opportunities for linebackers Lee Skinner and Blake Bean, the latter a transfer from Butler CC – which placed all three LBs from last year’s national championship runner-up team with Division I schools.
The defensive backfield returns with Johnson and Cortney Lester – the MAC’s top two in interceptions last year – holding down the corners and Derek Brim and Okoye Houston at the safeties. Perhaps the most encouraging development of the offseason has been the play of junior Kristjan Sokoli at the nose. He’s 6-foot-5, 300 pounds and picked up valuable experience last year rotating with Wyatt Cahill.
There’s stability in the kicking game with the return of punter Tyler Grassman and place-kicker Patrick Clarke. Both had solid camps and Grassman looks to have increased the hang time and distance at his disposal. No worries here.
The coverage units and the punt return game were areas of concern much of last season, which explains the increased emphasis on those phases throughout camp. Last year’s killer play was the kickoff return for a touchdown yielded after the Bulls opened a 14-0 lead at Ohio.
UB can tap any two of a number of wideouts and backs on kick returns but sure hands – Campbell or true freshman Boise Ross – will handle punts. Given the strength of the defense, the priority here is to avoid the momentum-changing turnover although Campbell and particularly Ross are breakaway threats.
If Licata manages the offense well – and there’s been no reason to suggest he can’t – the Bulls are capable of winning the East and advancing to the program’s second MAC title game. A 3-0 start in conference (vs. Eastern Michigan, at Western Michigan, vs. UMass) would be the ideal setup. And that’s hardly a reach.
At the least, UB should produce the six victories necessary to become eligible for a postseason bowl. But really, it’ll take no fewer than seven wins to declare this season a legitimate success given the talent at hand and the continuity of the coaching staff.