Word's out that the University at Buffalo football team needs to make progress this season, which raises the question: What's progress?
Would another one-win campaign surrounded by a string of nail-biting losses constitute an upswing in the fortunes of a program that lost six games last season by 23 or more points?
Are the Bulls expected to leap from two seasons of 1-11 to break-even in order for coach Jim Hofher to retain his job?
What exactly did Bill Maher, the school's interim director of athletics, mean when he said a while back that this year's team must show progress for Hofher to solidify his future? I think he meant that, in the end, all aspects of the season will be considered and common sense will reign.
Progress can take on forms other than wins and losses, especially when a program's still in its nascence, as is UB. For instance, Hofher went to Maher after last season and requested a hefty increase (by mid-major standards) in the football team's summer budget. He wanted to make summer classes available to more players, thereby encouraging them to remain in Buffalo, which would enable them to work out as a group and promote a sense of commitment and camaraderie. Maher saw the logic in the request and got the summer budget increased to $100,000, which is middle road for a Mid-American Conference team.
Far more players stayed on campus this summer, and the Bulls will be ahead of pace when practice opens Aug. 8. That's progress.
It's looking as if tailback Aaron Leeper, the former MAC Freshman of the Year, the Bulls' second-leading rusher as a sophomore, will be making the transition to cornerback when practice unfolds. The Bulls are stacked in the offensive backfield, awash with explosive backs younger than Leeper. As Hofher likes to say, "We're returning a 2,000-yard rusher, he just happens to have four heads."
Leeper's on board with the move for multiple reasons. It will lessen the beating on a shoulder that hindered him last season. It also allows the Bulls to fortify a lean defensive backfield with a quality athlete. When veteran players are open to positional switches that benefit the greater good of the team, that's progress.
UB will be predominantly a team of sophomores and juniors this season, putting them a year away from the makeup a coach covets. But the Bulls will be, in many cases, experienced beyond their years because Hofher has needed during his tenure to go young out of necessity. Hofher said the Bulls of this season will resemble a true MAC team, physically and athletically, more so than any he's had. That's also progress, assuming the leap in maturity manifests itself on the field.
Some of the licks the Bulls took last season were the result of an over-their-heads schedule. Their crossover games in the MAC were against nationally ranked Northern Illinois and an emerging Toledo team that this season is among the conference favorites.
In place of those games, the Bulls this year get Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan, two programs closer to their own level. How UB performs in those two contests in particular will lend vivid insight into how the program's coming along.
Hofher said earlier this week that he's feeling no increased pressure, no dire need to appease the administration and the alums.
"If there's more pressure no one's told me," Hofher said. "The only pressure I feel is the same pressure a coach always feels to get his team to perform to its potential."
But there is a need for Hofher to show that his Bulls have made strides on the field. It might not be measured in wins and losses, but we'll know it if we see it.