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UB football aiming high despite graduation losses

Jeff Quinn heads into his fifth season as University at Buffalo football coach facing perhaps his most daunting challenge yet.

He has to replace six all-conference players, including the school’s all-time leading rusher and the highest NFL draft selection in UB history.

Unlike Quinn’s first four seasons, Khalil Mack, Alex Neutz, Branden Oliver, Colby Way, Najja Johnson and Jasen Carlson will not be taking the field for the Bulls in 2014.

There are positional voids and question marks on both sides of the ball as UB begins training camp on Monday in preparation for the Aug. 30 opener against visiting Duquesne.

Quinn and his staff are charged with replacing a senior class that led the Bulls to one of the most successful seasons in school history. The 2013 squad finished 8-5, including a seven-game win streak in the middle of the season. The campaign landed UB a spot in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl where the Bulls fell to San Diego State, 49-24.

Yet, the team did not win the Mid-American Conference championship. It did not even appear in the title game after losing, 24-7, to Bowling Green with a trip to the championship in Detroit on the line.

Quinn saw a fire in this year’s team during spring ball, a desire to build off last season and take it a step further.

“We were one game away. We worked extremely hard to get to that game at Ralph Wilson Stadium to play Bowling Green,” Quinn said. “The second half of that game, they were able to separate from us on both sides of that ball.

“We’re not that far off. We know that. Our players feel that and sense that. But they have to be complete and they have to finish. There’s one goal: get to Detroit.”

There are some areas on the field where the team appears set. Quarterback Joe Licata is a given. Most of the offensive line is coming back, as are last year’s primary tight ends, Mason Schreck and Matt Weiser. But many of the other spots will be determined by training camp and in the early games.

The breakdown:

Quarterback: Licata is The Man. The redshirt junior enjoyed a breakout 2013 season, throwing for 2,824 yards and 24 touchdowns. The Williamsville native experienced a shakeup this spring as quarterbacks coach Don Patterson left to take a job at Connecticut. Offensive coordinator Alex Wood will take over the position.

“Alex has been the offensive coordinator. He’s been coaching receivers. As soon as the opportunity came, I moved him into the quarterback coach position,” Quinn said. “I think that’s a huge plus – when your coordinator’s coaching the key position. All spring long it’s been very positive in terms of transition.”

Running backs: The competition for carries will likely come down to three players – Anthone Taylor, Devin Campbell and Jordan Johnson. Taylor was a primary backup last season behind first-team All-MAC selection Oliver, the leading rusher in school history. Taylor ran for just under 400 yards and three touchdowns. Campbell, a junior who played primarily slot receiver last season, will compete for reps at tailback. He can also be used as a returner.

Johnson missed nearly all of last season with an injury. He’s got a big body frame and strictly plays tailback. Taylor is the favorite to earn the starting job out of camp, but Quinn plans to use all three in some way.

“All three are different, all three are unique and all three we’re going to utilize,” Quinn said. “We’re going to see who’s going to emerge and who’s going to be that top guy.”

Wide receivers: Neutz and Fred Lee combined for well over half the team’s receiving yards last season. This year, the offense will look to take a more balanced approach with a number of receivers capable of stepping in at any time. Boise Ross caught 13 passes for 156 yards, Devon Hughes seven for 91. Tight ends Weiser and Schreck combined for 30 catches and three TDs. Other players who will get looks at receiver include Ron Willoughby, Malcolm Robinson, John Dunmore and redshirt freshman Jacob Martinez.

Defensive line: Gone are Way and Beau Bachtelle – last year’s pass-rushing defensive ends who combined for 8.5 sacks. Nose tackle Kristjan Sokoli will return and he’ll be flanked by a host of young players looking to fill Way and Bachtelle’s void. Dalton Barksdale is the most experienced of the group. Quinn expects him to get plenty of reps. Brandon Crawford garnered some playing time as a true freshman. Tedroy Lynch should also figure into the picture – he was brought in specifically to fill the void when Way and Mack left. Max Perisse and Kendall Roberson are among the other defensive line candidates.

Linebackers: There may never be a better football player than Mack to come through UB. The linebacker set multiple school and national records on his way to becoming the fifth overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.

Quinn has no illusions about replacing Mack’s production but has faith in the defensive system in place. He considers defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Lou Tepper “one of the finest coaches in the country.”

Last year Tepper wrote a book called “Complete Linebacking,” which features a picture of Mack on the cover. Each linebacker received a copy for Christmas.

One of Tepper’s top pupils should be Jarrett Franklin – a Missouri native whose toughness has impressed Quinn. Lee Skinner and Jake Stockman should provide stability at the position.

Adam Redden, a third-team All-MAC selection in 2013, will be back to lead the secondary. He ranked third on the team in tackles last season and second behind Mack in tackles for loss.

Schedule: The Bulls open the season at home on Aug. 30 against Duquesne before hitting the road to take on Army. In the most challenging non-conference game of the season, Buffalo will host Baylor at 8 p.m. on Sept. 12. UB lost, 70-13, in Waco last season.

The Bulls will then take on Norfolk State before opening conference play at home against Miami (Ohio) Sept. 27 with the Dec. 5 MAC title game in the back of their minds.

Despite all the lost talent, Quinn says he expects to make that trip. He’s seen early indications that last year’s seniors set a precedent for how to prepare that this year’s team is following.

“I saw it this spring – you could just see the lasting effects guys like Khalil and Colby had on the team,” Quinn said. “Those guys set the tone and these guys now understand that it’s their opportunity.”