The University at Buffalo football program is banking on its young quarterback, some key transfers and continuity to pull out of the hole it created for itself in 2016.
The Bulls took a big step back from 5-7 to 2-10 in coach Lance Leipold’s second season. The fact the Bulls got worse after the graduation of all-time passing leader Joe Licata was not a surprise. The fact UB slipped so far was a blow to the program.
UB ranked 126th out of 128 teams in the nation in scoring. It was 94th in passing. It was 124th in rushing defense, allowing a school-record 253.2 yards a game. Eight of the 10 losses were lopsided.
Yet Leipold says living through extreme growing pains earlier in his career has steeled him for the building job at UB. He was at Wisconsin in the early 1990s when it rose to prominence, and he lived through a 1-10 season at Nebraska-Omaha.
“I received a lot of text messages in the fall about going through a tough season,” Leipold said. “Most of those were from people in the coaching world, and all are saying stay with your plan. It works. It has worked. And that’s what we have to do.”
So Leipold resisted an organizational shakeup after the season. Coordinators Andy Kotelnicki and Brian Borland remain in place. The coach says the value of staying the course and giving the players continuity will be vindicated.
“I think that’s a resounding theme, and not just in the programs that I’ve been a part of and believe in,” Leipold said. “Whether it be Miami of Ohio, Colorado, you’re talking about guys that have been given time to implement and believe in their system.”
UB fans can only hope the Bulls’ trajectory follows that of Mid-American Conference rival Miami. The RedHawks went 2-10 and 3-9 their first two years under Chuck Martin then started this season 0-6. They won six straight games to close the regular season.
One reason to believe UB can rebound is the Bulls appear to have a “franchise” quarterback.
Tyree Jackson, the 6-foot-7 red-shirt freshman from Michigan, got a full year of experience in 2016. His numbers were bad – 53 percent completions with nine TD passes and nine interceptions. But anyone who watched the games had to be impressed with his potential. He passes the eyeball test. He has a cannon arm. He throws a good deep ball. His accuracy is better than his percentage suggests. His pass protection wasn’t good enough, and his wide receiving corps arguably was the worst in the MAC.
“It’s going to be exciting to watch him develop,” Leipold said. “I know he’ll take it to a new level for us.”
Jackson should benefit from some significant, veteran transfers who sat out in 2016.
UB has a stud left tackle in 6-6, 344-pound Jacquis Webb, a transfer from Rutgers. Next to him at guard in practice was 6-4 Paul Nosworthy, a transfer from Grambling. Those two made the third-team offensive line look like a starting unit during practice sessions in the fall.
Joining the wide receiver corps is highly-credentialed junior college speedster Anthony Johnson of South Carolina. Leipold made a calculated decision to red-shirt him this year, because Johnson didn’t arrive on campus until August.
The development of Jackson and the addition of those three offer hope for a better offense in 2017. Another positive: the East Division of the MAC is not real strong.
But there’s no denying UB has a long way to go to become a bowl team. The overall team speed is not good enough and hasn’t been good enough for almost all of UB’s 18-year history at the top level of college football.
A lot is riding on the strength and conditioning program and the assistant coaches developing the underclassmen into better players next year. It’s expected UB will bring in at least a half-dozen mid-year enrollees this month. It will be interesting to see how many junior-college players Leipold adds to try to accelerate the rebuild.
Here’s a unit-by-unit look at where the Bulls stand a month before the national signing day for recruits:
Quarterback: There’s no reason Jackson shouldn’t take a good step forward in 2017. He should have a better feel on short touch passes and for putting more air under deep balls at times. He should read defenses better. He was not overly eager to bolt the pocket when his first read was covered, but that happened at times. He should be better vs. the blitz. Facing five or more pass rushers, Jackson completed 44 percent of his passes for 4.4 yards per attempt with four TDs, one interception and five sacks, according to News statistics. It’s no surprise that Licata, at the height of his powers as a senior, was much better. Licata completed 61 percent against the blitz in 2015 for 6.9 yards per attempt with seven TDs, five INTs and one sack. Jackson runs the read option well. He rushed for 459 yards (not counting sacks) on 5.3 yards a carry with five TDs.
From a broader perspective, Jackson showed the kind of intangibles that give the team confidence. He never threw a fit of immaturity on the field.
“I thought he handled that extremely well for a young quarterback,” Leipold said. “He took ownership. He didn’t deflect blame. A lot of things happen when you give up sacks. He didn’t get frustrated. If the route was at the depth it wasn’t supposed to be, he handled it like a leader.”
Running back: UB loses one of its best players with the graduation of Jordan Johnson, who rushed for 1,040 yards, fourth best in the MAC. However, there are three talented backs in the stable in sophomore Johnathan Hawkins and two freshmen who sat out, Kamerion Pickett and Theo Anderson. All three were highly touted recruits. Hawkins rushed for 338 yards and 4.7 a carry. Also back will be change-of-pace option Emmanuel Reed. UB should be at least OK at running back. The pass game was a bigger problem than the run game this year. On first down runs, UB had 198 carries for 942 yards (a 4.75 average, not counting goal-line plays). In 2014, a good offensive season, UB had 209 first-down runs for 949 yards (a 4.72 average).
Receiver: The big graduation loss is tight end Mason Schreck, who led UB with 59 catches. There’s a lot of hope that Johnson, a fluid speedster, will be a big contributor. But the position is not deep enough. Outside starter Kamathi Holsey returns. He was forced to play too many snaps for a first-year transfer and caught only 19 passes. Junior Jacob Martinez, hurt much of the year, could be a quality player from the slot or outside, as he showed with a 92-yard, one-TD performance in the season finale. Also back are
junior Jamarl Eiland and freshman K.J. Osborn, who showed some flashes. Sitting out this year were transfer Jerin Scroggins and freshmen Antonio Nunn and Tito Overton. Nunn shows particular promise. At tight end, Tyler Mabry caught nine passes as a freshman behind Schreck. The big recruit is Rochester’s Zac Lefebvre, who red-shirted this year. He’s built like Matt Weiser and Schreck. But how much will he be able to do in his first year on the field? Leipold and Kotelnicki will have to get a lot more out of the slot-receiver position, which has been underutilized the past two years. Kotelnicki prefers to work the outside the numbers to limit interceptions. But Martinez and Eiland have potential to work the middle of the field. UB likes to run four verticals, but the wideouts must create more separation going deep. UB was 7 for 34 on deep passes straight down the sideline, by The News’ count. Three of those were back-shoulder throws for 20-yard gains. None went for 40 or more yards.
Offensive line: If Webb is as good as advertised, he would join sophomore center James O’Hagan and junior guard Brandon Manosalvas on the starting unit. Nosworthy and Tomas Jack-Kurdyla, forced to play too soon as a true freshman this year, would upgrade the other guard spot. Maybe the O-line can turn from a weakness to a strength. Right tackle will have to be resolved. Junior Tyler O’Henly missed most of the season with a significant concussion. Junior David Goldsby took his spot. Red-shirt freshman Evin Ksiezarczyk (West Seneca East) and true freshman Kayode Awosika are promising recruits in development. UB’s O-line was not bad at handling assignments. But it needs to get stronger and get better push off the ball.
Defensive line: Edge rusher is one of the biggest worries on the team. UB lacks a quick-twitch pocket-wrecker. Hard to tell where the answer lies. Maybe Leipold and Borland, his defensive chief, need to look for more undersized hybrid rushers in the mold of Adam Redden (the 2014 graduate). Five D-linemen who saw significant time return: ends Demone Harris, Charles Harris and Myles Nicholas; and tackles Chris Ford, Justin Brandon. Corey Henderson and Christian Gonzalez saw time. The biggest graduation loss is senior Brandon Crawford. Sitting out were Duke Hwang (Williamsville North) and Jake Fuzak (Williamsville South), who has an impressive frame. UB gave up 10 runs of 40-plus yards. Only seven teams allowed more. UB needs its D-line to blow up a play once a quarter. That might bring down the third-down conversions allowed (43.8 percent), which ranked 116th.
Linebacker: All three starters will be back. Middle linebacker Khalil Hodge was a second-team all-MAC player as a sophomore. Jarrett Franklin is smart and assignment-sound at one outside spot, and Ishmael Hargrove has some play-making ability at the other. The threesome is not overly speedy. Maybe junior Jordan Collier and freshmen Justin Mulbah and Kadofi Wright can add more burst. Junior college commit Nikolas Ricks has athleticism at weak-side backer. Matt Otwinowski showed promise as a true freshman behind Hodge. UB faced the fourth-most rush attempts in the nation. Borland needs to solve QB option runs. Not counting the game against Army (which runs the triple option), QBs ran 84 times for 585 yards (a 6.96 average) vs. UB.
Defensive back: It’s too bad the senior season of Boise Ross was derailed by injury. Borland was not eager to leave his young secondary in a lot of man coverage, and the depth was so young that he made minimal use of nickel and dime packages. Sophomore Cameron Lewis is a good player at one corner. Sophomore Brandon Williams played a ton this year in relief of Ross and has size. UB needs to develop sophomore Tatum Slack and freshman Jeremiah Dadeboe. Safety, where experience is most valuable, has been a problem for two years. UB needs Ryan Williamson, a two-year starter, to emerge as a senior leader next year. At the other spot, freshman Dev Lamour was hurt most of the year, and transfer Tim Roberts was thrown into the fire. But the run defense was so poor, why throw? UB faced the fourth-fewest pass attempts in the nation.