Defense has been the weak side of the ball at the University at Buffalo since you-know-who took his talents to the NFL.
The Bulls just might be ready for a defensive revival this year, even though they do not have anyone remotely resembling Khalil Mack in uniform.
UB returns eight defensive starters, and the defensive cast has accumulated 118 career starts. The UB offense has only five returning starters, a new quarterback, three new offensive linemen and collectively brings back only 63 career starts.
The defense needs to be pretty good if the Bulls are going to improve on last year’s 5-7 record.
“Their comfort level of what we’re doing is exponentially better,” said UB defensive coordinator Brian Borland. “Their detailed knowledge of what we’re doing is better. We’re much more confident and savvy in what we’re doing. When you feel confident, you can cut loose and play. I think we’ve got some good players that are cutting it loose right now. They’re really allowing their ability to match what they know.”
There’s a lot of room for improvement.
UB allowed 31.5 points a game in 2014, the year after Mack graduated to the Oakland Raiders. Last season, the first for Borland and UB head coach Lance Leipold, the Bulls cut scoring to 26.7 points a game. That was sixth best in the Mid-American Conference.
However, UB yielded 437 yards a game against MAC opponents, 11th in the conference rankings and fifth most in school history.
Asked what aspect of his team he feels best about, Leipold said: “I’d have to go to our defense and the understanding of where we stand. A year ago, we were moving the pieces around from a three-man front of the previous year to our four-man front. Linebackers were now ends. Safeties were now outside backers. I think we’re a lot more comfortable with the personnel being where they need to be.”
Two days into training camp, what looks good?
• UB has a deep defensive line, with all four starters back and five others who saw playing time.
• The Bulls have a budding star in senior cornerback Boise Ross, who ranked fifth in the nation in passes defensed last year. The other starting corner is promising sophomore Cameron Lewis, who was good as the No. 3 at the position last year.
• The linebacking corps gets two returning starters back, added a big-bodied junior college transfer in the middle and is deeper. How much deeper? Junior outside backer Brandon Berry, who made second-team all-MAC last year, currently is running with the second string.
It’s reasonable to think Year Two in the system will see fewer assignment errors.
“We did better in not allowing as many large gains as the year before,” Borland said. “But we did give up a lot of 10-yard plays. Why are those things happening? I think a lot of it is some missed tackling and just not fitting right to the scheme. Instead of being on the right side of a guy, I’m on the left side. That’s all it takes sometimes for the offense to make something work.”
“Now we have a concrete foundation on what he expects,” Ross said. “We can play harder and faster. I think we can play more relaxed.”
Here’s a breakdown of the defensive units:
Defensive line: The starters are ends Demone Harris (Timon-St. Jude) and Brandon Crawford and tackles Chris Ford and Max Perisse. Sophomore tackle Justin Brandon is a penetrator who played 40 percent of the plays last year. Transfers Remaine Douglas (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Wesley Scott (Mount San Jacinto) have the size to help as rotation players. A big hope is defensive end Torey Hendrick, who sat out last season, becomes a difference-making situational edge rusher.
“Hopefully he can, because he’s noticeably fast on the edge,” Borland said.
UB had 22 sacks last year, but only 10 came without the benefit of blitzing.
“I think Brandon Crawford and Demone Harris are capable rushers,” Borland said. “I don’t know if that’s their reputation right now. But they’ve both done it at times. … I’d say on the D-line we’ll go nine or 10 deep, for sure.”
Linebackers: The starters for now are Jarrett Franklin on the short side of the field, Khalil Hodge in the middle and Ishmael Hargrove on the wide side. Berry will play a lot, even if he doesn’t beat out Franklin, who sat out last season with a back injury. Franklin can also back up Hodge, a 240-pounder from Stockton, Calif. Former safety Jordan Collier arguably is the next option after Hargrove on the wide side.
“Our top three linebackers last year played 98 percent of the meaningful snaps,” Borland said. “We didn’t sub. We have to sub because guys get worn down, they get nicked up.”
“I think Ish Hargrove and Jordan Collier were two of our backups last year who we didn’t want to put in, quite honestly,” Borland said. “Now they’re playing really well. They’ve really seized the opportunity and are stepping up their games.”
Defensive backs: The first teamers so far are Ross and Lewis at corners and Ryan Williamson and Dev Lamour at safety. Brandon Williams and Cameron Skipworth are running with the second team at corner. Andrews Dadeboe, Tim Roberts and William Rembert are pushing for time at safety. Williamson and Dadeboe were green sophomore starters last year, and it showed. Lamour, a red-shirt freshman from Montreal, pushed to the first unit with a strong spring.
“Our safeties last year was unsatisfactory overall,” Borland acknowledged. “Too many big plays given up, too many opportunities missed. … They’re more experienced now and we brought guys in. We have great competition. Hopefully iron sharpens iron.”