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UB Preview: Bulls hope Berry-Franklin combo makes LBs stronger

UB FOOTBALL PREVIEW: LINEBACKERS

(This is the second of eight position previews that will run this week. The full Buffalo News college football preview runs in Sunday's paper.)

Overview: Expected to be upgraded from last year and a position of strength for the Bulls, with five veteran players battling for playing time.

Projected starters: OLB Jarrett Franklin or OLB Brandon Berry, MLB Khalil Hodge, OLB Ishmael Hargrove.

Key backups: Franklin or Berry, OLB Jordan Collier, MLB Matt Otwinowski, MLB Caleb Wilson.

Strengths: The second most interesting battle of training camp (after QB) has been between Berry, who made second-team All-MAC last season, and Franklin, who was a solid starter in 2014 but missed all last year with a back injury. Franklin has seen more of the starting snaps so far in camp. The primary position for both is “boundary” LB, on the short side of the field. However, both figure to play a lot and could see some time at the wide side or “rover” spot. Franklin also is the No. 2 MLB. Berry is a downhill force, good on blitzes, who had 11.5 tackles for loss last year and ranked eighth in the MAC in tackles. UB was desperate to recruit a MLB after losing Nick Gilbo to graduation and landed Hodge from a California junior college. He’s a 6-foot-2, 240-pound thumper. As a high school senior, he led the state of California in tackles with an astounding 262 in 14 games.

Questions: Hodge is bigger and has more talent than Gilbo, but will he be an upgrade right away? Can he be a top-half-of-the-MAC MLB this year? Gilbo was one of the most assignment-sound players on the team last year. Hargrove, a junior from Cleveland, takes over the wide side of the field for Okezie Alozie. Hargrove had the best spring of anybody on the team. But Alozie was a quality player. Collier, a 5-11, 217-pound sophomore, figures to play a lot in Hargrove’s place on passing downs due to his coverage ability. Can the Hargrove-Collier combination be as good as Alozie? What's missing here is a long-armed outside backer who's 6-3 or 6-4. Those are hard to find in the MAC.

2015 Stats: Gilbo led UB in tackles with 113. Alozie was third with 85.

Analytics: Buffalo ranked 10th in the MAC in tackles for loss last year with 65. The front seven needs to be more disruptive.

Quotable: “We don’t want anybody to play the number of reps that those guys had to play last year,” said UB linebackers coach Chris Simpson. “They were playing that out of necessity. Jarrett was a leading tackler the year before. Now he returns. I’d say he and Brandon both have flexibility to not just play the boundary. Jarrett’s also playing some Mike. Brandon could go over and play Rover. We’re going to mix and match the best we can so we can play the best five, or six guys in a solid rotation.”

Did you know? Franklin is an electrical engineering major with a 3.2 grade-point average. He’s looking forward to a career in either nanotechnology or power systems.

Looking ahead: Otwinowski, 6-2 and 232, is from LaPorte, Ind., just west of South Bend. He has had a good camp and seen some second-team snaps at MLB. Depending on injuries, he might play as a true freshman. Otwinowski originally committed to Kent State and had an offer from Air Force but switched to UB. Freshman recruits Kadofi Wright and Justin Mulbah both are mobile ‘backers with coverage ability. Wright is 6-3.

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