Moments after the University at Buffalo's 2010 season ended with a loss at Akron, each member of the Bulls' senior secondary emerged from the locker room with tears welled in their eyes.
They exchanged hugs and farewells knowing that more than their season had come to an end. Coach Jeff Quinn probably wanted to cry, too, because having four seniors in the secondary like Davonte Shannon, Domonic Cook, Josh Thomas and Sherrod Lott was a luxury.
"It was a luxury until they graduated," Quinn said. "It's tough when you have four seniors, they all started and there weren't a lot of reps for the other guys because they were that good. Now they're all gone so we have to push harder and our coaches have to do a great job of coaching on the back end."
The departures of the four starters decimated the Bulls' secondary, which is why Quinn signed players last February at each position for better distribution and balance with each class. Shannon and Cook, who played corner and safety last season, were four-year starters while Thomas, who is projected to be selected in next month NFL Draft, started three years. Lott was primarily the nickel corner, starting eight games as a senior.
"Those guys played in 30-40 games and when you've played in that many games, there ain't much you haven't seen," safeties coach Mike Dietzel said. "It was old school for those guys."
Now, anything that's thrown at the current group is brand new.
"We have to tell it to them, show it to them, and then show them again but last year's group you just had to tell it to them once and they got it," cornerbacks coach Ernest Jones said.
Naturally, rebuilding the secondary is a priority this spring, a process that'll likely continue into training camp in August and may not be complete by the Sept. 3 season opener at Pittsburgh.
The list of candidates is a mixture of some players with a smidgen of experience at safety, and unproven youngsters at cornerback. The coaching staff is optimistic that by the time the season starts, they'll have a unit capable of containing the Panthers. But for now, patience is the operative word.
The players who received the most playing time at safety -- the positions are interchangeable in defensive coordinator William Inge's 3-4 scheme -- were sophomore Okoye Houston and juniors Isaac Baugh and Ray Anthony Long. Also expected to compete is redshirt freshman Whitney Sherry from Miami.
"They got a lot of reps during the season, played a lot of special teams," Dietzel said. "They didn't start but played and practiced with [the first team] so they got exposed to all the defensive calls, all the adjustments. From that standpoint, the transition is fairly smooth."
The same cannot be said at cornerback, although Jones is enthusiastic.
"It's a new day, a new birth," he said. "We've got a bunch of young [players] who bring a lot of energy and excitement. They love to run, they love to hit and they love to catch so it's very refreshing to coach a new group of guys like that."
The most experienced of the group is sophomore Carlos Lammons, who started four games last season. Senior Joe Petit played on special teams while sophomore Romel Dismuke, a transfer from Cincinnati, is expected to compete for a starting position.
Other options include sophomore Najja Johnson and redshirt freshmen Dwellie Striggles, Keith Takeh, Cortney Lester and Adam Redden. Lester and Redden have converted from receiver.
The Bulls signed three defensive backs in Marquis Baker from Tampa, Mike Brown from Pickerington, Ohio, and Kyndal Minniefield from Daphne, Ala. Quinn proved last season he isn't bashful about playing true freshmen.
"If ever there was a year for a freshman to have a shot," Dietzel said, "this would be the year."