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Retooling begins for UB as spring football practice opens

Joe Licata listened as Jeff Quinn was asked the inevitable question: How will the University at Buffalo replace all the production lost from last season?

Spring football brings annual positivity and it’s not like Khalil Mack, Branden Oliver and Alex Neutz can remain on the roster so new faces and new players have to emerge.

“We’re not worried about that, we’re just having fun out here and getting better,” Licata said. “The thing is you can never replace a Khalil Mack, you can never replace a Branden Oliver, you could never replace an Alex Neutz. Those were players who were three of the best to ever come through this program. We won’t be able to replace those players individually but we’ll do it as a team.”

Spring football started Wednesday for the Bulls, coming off an 8-5 season, a win away from claiming the Mid-American Conference East Division title and the second bowl appearance in school history.

Licata’s attitude is basically what Quinn hopes to see from his team this spring and off-season: Determined to improve rather than living in the past.

“We started slow last year and then we picked it up and finished well, but not where we would have liked to have been,” senior center Trevor Sales said. “We kept a bunch of starters, on the line for sure, and the starting five we have right now is the starting five we finished with last year. We’ve got a bunch back to keep the train rolling.”

Spring time is about position battles, position switches and pinpointing underclassmen to develop and fill openings left by departing seniors. The Bulls will miss several key players from last season’s team – wide receiver Fred Lee, defensive end Colby Way, strong safety Okoye Houston, and corner Najja Johnson among them.

The retooled secondary, defensive line and receiving corps are Quinn’s biggest concerns, he said. And, whether they are ready to admit it or not, the four-year starting acts of Mack, Oliver and Neutz will be tough to follow.

“It was a tremendous experience to have those young men, and I saw when they were young players and how much they took advantage of their opportunity, and that’s what this group has,” Quinn said. “Each of these guys has an opportunity to have stake their claim to their role and leadership responsibility and that’s what they understand.”

While there’s a sense of pride from last year – it was only the second time UB has finished above .500 since 1996 – there’s also hint of coming up short.

The objective was to win the MAC Championship Game and a regular-season ending loss to Bowling Green ruined that opportunity. The Bulls 49-24 loss to San Diego State in the Idaho Potato Bowl was a low point as well.

Now there’s something to prove.

“There’s a certain kind of hunger,” Licata said. “The younger guys had a taste of it but they weren’t the central guys and they want to be those guys, be those playmakers. You could see it, the energy out there a lot of guys are excited.”