Much of what ails the University at Buffalo football program was seen walking out of UB Stadium on Tuesday 30 minutes before the start of Turner Gill's weekly news conference. One can conclude without reservation that the Bulls might be 3-1, surely no worse than 2-2, if All-Mid-American Conference running back James Starks were still the mainstay in the backfield, tormenting opponents with his powerful yet elusive running, providing sophomore quarterback Zach Maynard with another big-play target in the passing game.
There was compelling reason to believe the Bulls could mitigate the loss of Starks, an NFL high-end prospect lost for the season after summer shoulder surgery. Dynamic wideouts Naaman Roosevelt and Brett Hamlin were returning. Tight end Jesse Rack had come of age. The offensive line showed promise, and has, in fact, played well despite injuries. Running back Brandon Thermilus oozed potential while providing a change-of-pace alternative to Starks last season.
But surely even the Leaning Tower of Pisa looked good on the blueprint. Four games, three of them losses, have revealed that the absence of Starks has tipped the footers out of kilter. Opponents are granting Thermilus no room on the inside, and he lacks the burst to consistently turn the corner. So stagnant is Buffalo's running game that Gill conceded that he and his staff are considering making greater use of junior Ike Nduka, who has a gear beyond Thermilus' top speed and owns the team's long run of the season: 23 yards.
Twenty-three yards? Seems like Starks went that far, or longer, once a half.
There are other areas of concern as the Bulls attempt to regroup for Saturday's home game against high-powered Central Michigan and multi-threat quarterback Dan LeFevour. Outside of two A.J. Principe field goals, the special teams were putrid in last Saturday's loss at Temple, necessitating, among other things, a reassessment of the punting job held by Peter Fardon and the insertion of Roosevelt as a kick returner. An undersized defensive front seven remains overly dependent on the performance of standout linebacker Justin Winters. Every opponent struggling with its running game has found its footing against the Bulls.
All these factors, but particularly the absence of Starks, have conspired to elevate and concentrate the pressure on Maynard, the sophomore successor to Drew Willy. Maynard's thrown six interceptions on the season, four of them at Temple. And while Gill said after the game he'd have to see the tape before commenting on what went amiss, further examination showed Maynard paid the price for forcing throws, which happens when an offense guided by a young quarterback becomes overly reliant on its downfield passing game.
Gill said two of the throws were just bad reads.
"Probably three out of the four should not have been thrown," he said. "The one play we had a screen play called and unfortunately the defensive lineman just made a great play, and those things happen. Again, that's part of football.
"He also made quite a few good throws, too. He made some excellent throws in that ballgame that you forget about."
Maynard's abilities remain apparent. With superior arm strength and great speed, he should eventually evolve into an accomplished college quarterback. In the interim, Gill and his staff have to relieve the QB's burden by finding cures for UB's other deficiencies, especially its lackluster running game.
Unless remedies are rapidly forthcoming, UB's season could end up a dissertation on what might have been with Starks in the lineup.