The University at Buffalo opens spring football practice Thursday, and coach Craig Cirbus couldn't be happier.
"It's been a long offseason," he said. "I'm just delighted to get back on the field."
This spring will have more significance than others because it will be the first in which all the players were acquired by Cirbus and his staff.
It will also be the first time he can truly evaluate where the program is and where it is headed. Unlike previous spring sessions, Cirbus will have plenty of bodies to work with. About 76 players are expected to participate during the two-week drills at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Fieldhouse. Fewer than 50 players were in uniform last spring, but the roster has grown as redshirted players became eligible.
"Having more people is a big advantage because it allows us to set up all kinds of practice scenarios," he said. "It's not important at the beginning of spring who's going to start. Our goal is to teach, get everybody exposure and at the end have a good picture of who can contribute."
Cirbus is losing nine starters to graduation, including six from a defense that set a school record for points allowed in a season. The Bulls went 2-9 last year.
"Everywhere we were weak last year, we've lost players," he said.
Cirbus is looking for the "11 best players" he can put on defense. As a result, several offensive players have been converted to positions on the other side of the ball.
Rising sophomore tailback Reggie Cox, who was impressive in brief appearances last season, has been moved to an already young secondary. Williamsville South graduate Doug Goeckel, the odd-man out in a deep wide receiving corps, will get a shot at free safety.
Dan Shefferly saw a lot of playing time at fullback last season, but has been moved to linebacker, a position at which the Bulls lack depth. Another fullback, Kevin Johnson, will play strong safety this spring. Josh Stello, a starter on the offensive line as a freshman, has been moved to the defensive line, which was hit hard with personnel losses.
There are not as many holes on offense, but the departure of three-year starter Anthony Swan leaves a big hole at tailback. David Hinson, the former Jamestown High star, will get his first chance in four years to be a full-time starter.
"David has an opportunity to prove himself," Cirbus said. "But it's an open door for all of our tailbacks."
Wilson product David Schmidli will provide some competition. He was redshirted as a freshman, but drew raves from coaches and teammates for his work on and off the practice field last season.
"I was overwhelmed with Schmidli's work ethic last season. He never took a play off," Cirbus said. "He does not have great speed, but has good feet and quickness."
Theron Walker, a 5-foot-9, 217-pound fullback, and 6-2, 220- pound linebacker Marvin Brereton will also be evaluated as Cirbus experiments with the big back that has become popular in college and professional ball.