For the past three years, Dan Poulsen could look along the University at Buffalo's defensive line and find comfort in the presence of veterans like Keith Hansen, Hardy Mitchell and Joe Johnson.
But there is no such luxury this season. When Poulsen looks at the line now, he will be surrounded by players barely old enough to shave.
"It will be a little weird this year," said Poulsen, the only senior on the defensive front. "I was happy to have a chance to play with those other guys, but you have to adjust to new things. This is my time to step up and provide some leadership."
Indeed, the Bulls are looking for the North Tonawanda product to be an example to the young defenders on and off the field.
In coach Craig Cirbus' mind, the team couldn't have a better leader. Prior to spring practice, Poulsen was named one of the team's captains, along with wide receiver Kali Watkins and offensive lineman Mike Garofalo.
"Dan Poulsen is a role model," Cirbus said. "He's a definition of what every university looks for in their athletic program and the definition of what every university looks for in their student body."
It wasn't always that way. Coming out of North Tonawanda, some doubted Poulsen could make the grade on the field and in the classroom.
Although he was a state champion wrestler and a first-team All-Western New York selection in football, several colleges -- including UB -- thought Poulsen was too short at 6 feet to be much of a Division I player.
He was also a marginal student, who barely had the grades to get into UB.
However, Poulsen rededicated himself to being a better student-athlete.
"I just felt if I was ever going to make something of myself, I had to take things a lot more seriously," he said. "I've surprised myself a little bit. Not a lot of people from Western New York end up at a Division I school, whether it's I-AA or I-A. I'm happy the way things worked out for me."
After playing sparingly as a freshman, Poulsen earned four starts as a sophomore. He became a full-time starter at defensive end last season, leading the team with seven quarterback sacks.
Off the field, Poulsen found even more success by earning GTE District I Academic All-America honors. His 3.8 grade-point average in physical therapy was the highest of any UB athlete.
"He's a kid who has totally turned his life around," Cirbus said. "He's the most conscientious student on our football team. He doesn't have great speed. He's not a great pass rusher, certainly not from the outside. But he's a dependable, play-in and play-out, know-what-you're-going-to-get football player. From my perspective, that's what we're looking for."
Cirbus has moved Poulsen to defensive tackle in hopes of plugging the hole left by Hansen and Mitchell, a free agent trying to make the Buffalo Bills.
But given the inexperience of his linemates, Poulsen has been told to be prepared to play everywhere.
"This is my last year, so I don't want to go out with the same season we had last year," he said. "Since I can't be here when the program goes to Division I-A, I want to be part of laying a good foundation for the future."