A year ago at this time, Buffalo State coach Jerry Boyes was trying to replace the most productive group of backs and receivers in the school's history.
Mission accomplished. This year Boyes and the Bengals are loaded again with experienced offensive personnel. Quarterback Chris Henry (Niagara-Wheatfield) is back, as is virtually every player who scored a touchdown or gained yardage last year and three wide receivers who accounted for 82 of the team's 96 receptions.
Last season the Bengals went 8-2 and defeated Plymouth State for the ECAC Northwest championship in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. This year, however, they face their toughest schedule ever. It starts with a Sept. 5 home game against Division I-AA power Robert Morris, coached by former New York Jets head coach Joe Walton.
The schedule also includes for the first time Rowan College of New Jersey, which has beaten Buffalo State four straight times in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Another new opponent is Adrian College of Michigan. Ithaca, Cortland and Brockport, all of which figure to have strong teams, are back as well.
Henry's improvement last season was one of the keys to the Bengals' success. He may have to keep on improving to hold off redshirt freshman Nick Stepien, the former Frontier Central star. Stepien is left-handed.
"Early on Chris was an athlete playing the position," Boyes said. "He became a quarterback the last three games. You could see the development. He stopped making the inexperience mistakes.
"We're going to have great competition between Henry and Stepien. Henry played a full year and Stepien impressed with some of the things he did in scrimmages."
Buffalo State is three-deep in experienced tailbacks, with Shawn Starks (Lockport), Dion Foendoe and Tinelle Walker. Starks saw more action than the other two, but all three played extensively. Boyes doesn't want a revolving door at the position but says there usually is plenty of work to go around.
"We're so tailback-oriented that our tailbacks usually run the ball 35 of 45 times a game," Boyes said. "We'll have a main man but the other guys will play for longevity's sake."
The incoming freshmen include All-Western New York running back Major Cole (O'Hara), the all-time WNY career rushing leader with 4,645 yards.
Aaron Vanderlip, whose season last year was curtailed by a knee injury, is back as the fullback, a primary blocker in Boyes' offense.
Mike Zappia (West Seneca West), Craig Dana (Kenmore West) and Derek Baker (Performing Arts) are the returning wide receivers. Zappia received some preseason All-America mention as a punter as well.
Melvin Parris is a tight end with experience. Boyes wants to get more receiving production out of the position. Tight ends had only four receptions for the Bengals in 1997.
Freshman Tim Round averaged 41.8 yards for Sweet Home and made All-Western New York as a punter. He also kicked a 49-yard field goal, third longest in WNY history. Round probably will be the place-kicker and will push Zappia (41.6 average last season) for the punting duties.
Tackle Dan Lauta (Sweet Home), whom Boyes considers an All-America candidate, anchors the split-end side of the offensive line. He's 6-foot-4, 285 pounds. Guards Carl Petroziello and Nick Villa are back, too. The other tackle probably will be Dave Idzik (Kenmore East), who started some games two years ago but was a tight end last season.
Boyes says the center spot is up for grabs with redshirt freshman Michael Stachewicz (Depew) and sophomore Mike Wegman among the contenders.
"I like to think we're going to have a good base up there," Boyes says of the offensive line.
Five starters return on defense, but only one, sophomore tackle Tim Seifert, is on the line. That's where defensive coordinator Dick Adams has the biggest questions.
Linemen Seifert, Nick Runco (Hamburg), Jon Girard, Gregory Rogers (Cheektowaga), who played inside linebacker last year, and Joe Malecki (Kenmore West) all have some experience.
Leading tackler Jon Crumley, who was elected one of the Bengals' captains though only a junior, and Aaron Woloszyn (Lancaster) are returning inside linebackers. Chris Pietrzyk and Jeff Mackey have experience on the outside. Scott Haussauer (Depew), a promising performer as a freshman three years ago, has rejoined the team after missing two seasons because of an ROTC commitment. Another candidate is sophomore Ted Baciurka (Eden), who transferred from UB to study graphic arts.
Sophomore safety Rodney Randall, who became a standout after moving from quarterback, and junior cornerback Brian Hillman lead the secondary, which also includes Dan Martin, the former Western New York Player of the Year from Lake Shore. Martin was the Bengals' top punt returner and broke into the lineup as the starting strong safety last season. Tom Lawniczak (Lancaster) is a candidate for the cornerback spot vacated by Cam DiFelice.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Thompson, an All-American triple-jumper for the Bengals last spring, is an impressive secondary candidate.
Boyes concedes that his team looks strong when you consider all the returning talent.
"Now it's up to all the unknowns," he said. "How well we all come together at the start and the leadership of our senior group and how the ball bounces or doesn't."