Opposing offenses paid increased attention to University at Buffalo left defensive end Steven Means during his sophomore year with the Bulls. Double-teams were more frequent. Right-handed quarterbacks were more aware that he could come bearing down from their blind side. The respect granted Means surely had something to do with his inability to build off his sack total from his freshman season.
Perhaps the greatest impact the Grover Cleveland product had on the defense last season could be attributed to the fact offenses were constantly accounting for his presence. Surely his reputation played a part in left outside linebacker Khalil Mack exploding onto the scene as a freshman with a team-high 14 1/2 tackles for losses and a sack total (4 1/2 ) that tied Means for the team lead.
"Steve is an awesome player," Mack said. "He got the attention last year. Then we pretty much shared it at times and we manipulate that. I'm blessed to be on the same field with that guy."
"He's about to erupt," defensive coordinator William Inge said of Means. "What we always talk about is to make sure we can tap into their potential. We just keep pushing them to do so every day."
Means worked diligently over the summer to become even more difficult for linemen to handle. He finished last season weighing about 235 pounds. He'll begin this season around 250 without having sacrificed any of the trademark quickness that's been a subject of conversation around UB football since he tormented Bulls offensive linemen while redshirting as a true freshman.
"When you look at the body structure and what [strength] coach [Zach] Duval has been able to do with him over the summer, it's been awesome," Inge said.
Last season Means was seventh on the Bulls in tackles (50) and solos (21). His tackles for losses increased from 6 as a freshman to 8, second to Mack. His sacks decreased from five to 4 1/2 .
"The sky's the limit for me," Means said. "That's what I'm trying to reach. I definitely don't want to be nowhere around where I was last year. I don't want to be nowhere around there in terms of sacks, tackles, tackles for losses. I want to get as much as I can. I want to help this team out as best as I can. I want to get us to a MAC championship with everybody contributing."
Inge is less concerned with statistics than with impact.
"We don't put stats on a tag per se, we just want production," he said. "And we tell our players 'Make the plays you're supposed to make.' The good thing about he and Khalil Mack is, we want those guys to be able to do the things we don't have to coach. And that's the things they can do when they come to the field with a lot of athleticism, a lot of communication and a lot of effort. The good Lord has really given them some great ability when the ball is snapped to go hunt the ball."
To that end Means can't wait to slip his leash. Quarterbacks are off limits during camp, scrimmages included. The satisfaction that comes with a bone-jarring sack must wait until the regular season begins.
"You work so hard to get there and then when you get there full speed then you got to let up and it's real frustrating," Means said. "But I can't wait until Sept. [the opener at Pitt] where they can't hold me back."
Mack and Means will be a handful. CollegeFootballNews.com has both on its all-MAC preseason defensive team and ranks them among the top 30 players in the Mid-American Conference.
"We challenge each other every day," Mack said. "He challenges me to get better and that's all I can ask for as a teammate out of him. He's like a brother to me. Steve Means, big smile but angry on the field. He comes with a big punch."