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BULLS HOPE YOUNG SQUAD CAN SHAKE '97 NIGHTMARE

No one is happier to get the football season started than University at Buffalo coach Craig Cirbus.

After what happened last year, can you blame him?

Cirbus usually tries to look for positives, but he couldn't find many in a nightmarish 2-9 campaign. The Bulls should be better this season, their last before moving up to Division I-A and the Mid-American Conference.

They will also be much younger.

Of the 90 players who reported to preseason practice this summer, only six are seniors. More than half of the team has yet to play a down of college football.

How much UB improves will depend on how quickly it matures.

"This season is going to be a challenge, but I really enjoy the unknown," Cirbus said. "Everything we do is new. Every road we turn is a new road with this football program. We're laying a foundation, and it's fun to be a part of putting this together.

"The only thing we're lacking talent-wise is game experience and knowing how to play with confidence. That's what we hope to build on this season."

Here's a closer look at the 1998 Bulls:

Offense

Make no mistake about it -- this is clearly UB's strength.

Led by quarterback Chad Salisbury, the Bulls could have one of the most potent passing games in all of college football.

Salisbury, a strong-armed 6-foot-6, 240-pound senior, made a big splash in his first season after transferring from Division I-A New Mexico. In 10 games, he set school records for attempts (384), completions (218) and yards (2,889) while ranking eighth in I-AA in total offense (279.7 per game).

However, Salisbury must improve his TD (16) to interception (17) ratio to take his game to the next level.

"I put up some good numbers, but I made too many mistakes at crucial times," said Salisbury, the eighth-best I-AA signal-caller, according to The Sporting News. "With a year under my belt, I'm more comfortable with the offense and my role in it. I think that will make a big difference in how I play this year."

Salisbury will benefit from having a pair of talented receivers in junior Drew Haddad and senior Kali Watkins.

Haddad, ranked sixth among I-AA wideouts by The Sporting News, has become a legitimate All-America candidate after becoming UB's first 1,000-yard receiver. Blessed with great hands and deceptive speed, he gained 1,058 yards on a school-record 67 catches and scored three touchdowns. He gave fans a glimpse of what they might see this fall during the spring game by grabbing nine passes for 263 yards and five TDs.

Watkins, a great route runner, had 54 catches for 714 yards and two scores a year ago. He needs 40 receptions and 784 yards to become the Bulls' career leader in both categories.

Junior Enrico Pierre, senior John Opfer and incoming freshman Dahnel Singfield from Baltimore (Md.) Dunbar High provide quality depth.

"I think our passing game should be very sound," Cirbus said. "I have no problem in saying that it would be difficult to find a passing operation, in terms of production, much better than ours."

The Bulls got very little production from their tight ends a year ago. Starter Casey Wakula left the program, leaving junior Gabe Kogler (Hamburg) and sophomore Brandon Shaughnessy to carry on. Kogler is a strong blocker, while Shaughnessy is the better receiver.

With all-time leading rusher Anthony Swan graduated, UB no longer will rely on one man to carry the load. Former Jamestown star David Hinson will get a chance to replace Swan at tailback, but he faces a stiff challenge from redshirt freshman David Schmidli (Wilson) and sophomore Theron Walker.

Though Schmidli (5-10, 208) and Walker (5-9, 217) give UB more size, Hinson is stronger than his 5-8, 186-pound frame suggests.

All three will play, but Hinson is determined to claim exclusive rights to the starting job.

"David and Theron are two great young running backs, and if having them contribute is going to make us a better team, then I'm all for that," Hinson said. "But I'm not going to make it easy for them to get ahead of me. I've been waiting around for three years now, and I'm ready to do whatever it takes to be the main guy."

There hasn't been a productive runner at fullback since Todd Pace graduated two years ago. Returning starter Josh Roth (Pine Valley) is a powerhouse blocker and an emerging ball carrier. Redshirt freshman Marvin Brereton had a strong spring, but nagging injuries and a lack of offseason conditioning have set him back.

The offensive line had its share of growing pains last season. While allowing only 18 quarterback sacks, the front five failed miserably in the running game (2.1 yards per carry).

But a year of experience should make a difference. Juniors Mike Garofalo and Joe Hattendorf are in their third years as starters. Garofalo was a right tackle but returns to right guard, where the 6-4, 281-pounder started as a freshman. The 6-5, 304-pound Hattendorf is a stalwart at left tackle.

Tom Brown (Amherst) has moved from left guard to right tackle and David Pruce, a 6-7, 288-pound sophomore, takes over at left guard. UB lost center John Mesler to graduation. Sophomore Dominic Monacelli gets the job by default because his main competition, sophomore Bo Rogers, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury while pushing a lawn mower in the offseason.

Defense

After this unit gave up a school-record 37 points per game and allowed four teams to score 50 points or more, Cirbus felt a change was needed. A coaching shuffle included the firing of defensive coordinator Ed O'Neil and the promotion of defensive line coach Joe Reich.

On the field, Cirbus must replace six starters. Senior Dan Poulsen (North Tonawanda) anchors what will be an inexperienced defensive line. Sophomore Josh Stello, who started the last nine games at right offensive guard last year, has been converted to defensive tackle.

Cirbus is looking for improvement in the pass rush, which produced a mediocre 25 sacks in 1997. The answer could be Rykker Thorn, a 6-3, 250-pound speed-rushing end who was a late transfer from East Carolina. Junior Eric Campbell, sophomore Brad Tanton and true freshman Bob Dzvonick will be counted on as well.

Junior linebacker Dan Curcione, who was second in tackles last season with 91, has been very productive since becoming a starter as a freshman. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, he is athletic enough to roam from sideline to sideline.

Senior Antonio Perry (5-10, 205) makes up for a lack of size with quickness and a physical playing style at outside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Chris Shelly had a strong spring and could unseat incumbent junior Josh Trexler at the other outside backer spot.

In the secondary, youth and the lack of a pass rush resulted in just seven interceptions and a 59.5-percent completion rate by opposing quarterbacks. This group actually got younger as there are no upperclassmen on the depth chart.

Cornerbacks Carlos Spencer (South Park) and Tory Smith had nine starts between them as true freshmen. Spencer, a former walk-on, has become a Cirbus favorite because of his work ethic and play-making ability. Smith (5-11, 192) is the prototype Division I-A corner with the skills to be a quality player.

Eric Pipkins became the starting strong safety as a redshirt freshman last season and will probably be there until he graduates. At 5-9 and 190 pounds, he is a big-time hitter. The Bulls hope sophomore Jeff Lawrence can handle the free safety job. He had one start last year, but missed most of the season with a foot fracture. True freshman Craig Rohlfs from national high school power Cincinnati Moeller has made an impression during the preseason.

Special Teams

The kicking game was an adventure at times last year. Place-kicker Scott Keller (25 of 30 extra points, 4 of 9 field goals) and punter Mike Masucci (37.2 yards) must show more consistency than they did as freshmen.

Haddad and Watkins are the Bulls' best kick returners, but Cirbus would like to avoid using his starting wideouts. Smith and Hinson will get looks there, but a wild card could be true freshman Bernard "Bam" McDonald, a burner with 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash.

The coverage teams need some improvement. Opponents averaged 11.9 yards on punt returns and 23.3 on kickoffs.

Outlook

UB will score plenty of points, but can the offense produce enough to make up for what an inexperienced defense gives up?

Besides youth, the Bulls have a difficult schedule. Four of their first five games and three of the last four are on the road. A strong start is vital because the season ends with four high-powered top-25 teams (Liberty, Western Illinois, Villanova and Hofstra).

UB has Division I-A talent throughout the roster, and the tough schedule will likely accelerate the maturation process. However, it may not be reflected in the won-lost record. A 6-5 season should be considered an accomplishment after last year's miserable finish.

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