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Hargrove appears set to step in at linebacker for UB

Year Three is big in the development of a college football player.

It’s time to start showing some playmaking ability by the time a player becomes either a true junior or redshirt sophomore.

The University at Buffalo’s third-year player on the rise so far this spring has been junior linebacker Ishmael Hargrove.

He played almost none on defense last season as backup to ironman senior Okezie Alozie. Through 13 practices this spring, he’s starting at the outside linebacker position on the wide side of the field.

“Within the defense, Ish might be one of, if not the most, improved players from a year ago,” said UB linebackers coach Chris Simpson. “Part of it is he’s got opportunity and he’s getting a ton of reps. And beyond his playing, he’s taking leadership and ownership in the defense.”

The UB linebacking corps will look a lot different this year. The Bulls graduated three of last year’s top four players: Alozie, middle linebacker Nick Gilbo and backup Travis Pitzonka.

The Bulls have outside backer Jarrett Franklin back from a season-long back injury. He has been mostly starting on the boundary side of the field, ahead of Brandon Berry, who starred last season. The new middle linebacker is junior college transfer Khalil Hodge, a big presence at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds.

Hargrove is a 6-foot-2, 221-pounder from Cleveland. He ranked No. 2 in his high school class and was an academic all-Ohio pick. He carries a 3.0 grade-point average as a hearing science major. He says a better understanding of the defense has made him better this year.

“I feel the game has gotten slower for me,” he said. “I’m able to understand things more and react quicker, especially compared to last year when it was a new defense for all of us. This year I’m getting a lot more reps, and my physicality has gone up.”

“A year ago in the meeting room, he really did know what he was doing,” Simpson said. “He knew the answers. It’s being able to take what you know in the classroom and executing it on the field. Stuff happens pretty quick.”

“He’s doing a much better job playing with his hips down and with lower pad level,” Simpson said. “He’s got good length, which is not something we have a ton of in the linebacker group. He’s one of the taller guys. And he has flexibility because we can play him both to the field side and to the boundary. His versatility and his understanding are probably his biggest assets.”

Hargrove isn’t as fast as Alozie, a 6-foot-tall converted safety. But he has more size. Alozie was a safety playing in the box. Hargrove is a linebacker with the ability to play in space. He can play physical. He stopped Zach Nicholas for a 2-yard loss on a goal-line play in Saturday’s scrimmage.

How well will he do in space? We’ll see. Both he and Franklin have seen time at both outside positions to give the coaches more versatility.

“I like the rover spot because I’m downhill but I’m still more of an open-field guy and I like to run,” Hargrove said. “I’m comfortable playing that spot because I have field to work with.”

Hargrove picked UB over Kent State. Toledo and East Carolina also had interest.

UB is aiming to utilize more depth at linebacker this season. Last year, the starters all played 90 percent of the snaps or more.

The Bulls could have three starting-caliber outside linebackers in Franklin, Hargrove and Berry. Berry ranked second on the team in tackles last season. Mobile safety Jordan Collier is being used as an outside linebacker, too. He could be a fourth in the rotation.

“I think better depth will help us defensively but also will help us on special teams,” Simpson said. “Moving forward, I’d say we’d like to have five and hopefully six guys be able to actually get playing time and get in the rotation at linebacker.”

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UB has one more closed spring practice on Thursday. The Blue & White Spring Game will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at UB Stadium, and it is open to the public.

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UB football coach Lance Leipold agreed to a one-year contract extension that takes his deal through the 2020 season, Athletics Director Allen Greene announced.

Leipold led the Bulls to a 5-7 mark in 2015, becoming the first UB head coach to win five games in his debut season since Bob Deming went 6-3 in 1969. It was expected that UB would seek such an extension within the first 18 months of Leipold’s tenure. UB did the same with former men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley. Leipold earns $400,000 in annual compensation, not counting some performance incentives written into the contract.

“We are confident in Lance and his staff and are pleased with the progress that has been made,” Greene said. “He is building a program the right way and the future is bright under his leadership.”

Leipold brought with him to Buffalo a 109-6 career record from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com