Defensive end is the newest of the new-look positions at the University at Buffalo’s spring football practices.
The Bulls have to find two starters at defensive end for their new 4-3 defense. The past three years they played a 3-3-5 defense, so their two outside defensive linemen were not conventional edge rushers.
“I love it,” said sophomore Zach Smekal. “I think it puts all the defensive linemen in the best spot to succeed. I think we’re going to be very successful with this style of defense.”
Smekal, a 6-foot-3, 255-pounder from New Jersey, has been rotating at one starting defensive end spot with Demone Harris, a 6-4 sophomore from Buffalo. Solomon Jackson, a 6-1 sophomore, has been the other starting end in the first two days of practice at the Adpro Sports Training Center in Orchard Park.
Who knows who’s going to wind up starting? It’s all a work in progress, as new coach Lance Leipold and his staff get a feel for the players. UB also has two promising defensive-end recruits coming in the summer in 6-4 junior college transfer Torey Hendrick of New Jersey and 6-3 freshman Charles Harris of Michigan.
For now, everybody is trying to get more comfortable and more familiar with their roles.
“For a team that was 5-6 last year, there’s talent here to build with,” Leipold said after Friday afternoon’s practice. “We just have to get them in the right places. There’s definitely parts we can mold. As we get into pads, that’s going to be a big thing to give us some more answers. There’s guys who show up in shorts at all levels of football.”
Smekal got a scholarship offer from UB despite missing his entire senior year of high school with a knee injury. He has quickness. Harris, a 270-pounder who starred at Timon-St. Jude, has ideal DE size. He walked onto UB last year but impressed enough in practice to be put on scholarship.
“It’s definitely a blessing and an opportunity of a lifetime,” Harris said.
Jackson is making a big shift from backup inside linebacker in the 3-3-5 to edge rusher. He’s a tad short for the job. But he’s an athlete who was one of the higher-rated members of former coach Jeff Quinn’s 2013 recruiting class. He picked UB over Ball State, Georgia State and Appalachian State.
“Solomon Jackson looks like, for two days, wow, he’s doing a good job,” said defensive coordinator Brian Borland.
Redshirt freshman Randy Anyanwu and sophomore Myles Nicholas, both 6-2, are two other former linebackers who have switched to defensive end.
Keeping in mind that the initial depth chart is etched in sand with a new coaching staff on board, here’s how the positions have shaped up for UB:
• Quarterback: With starter Joe Licata recovering from hip surgery, senior Tony Daniel has started and been followed by redshirt freshman Chris Merchant and junior Collin Michael.
• Running back: Senior Anthone Taylor looks sharp, and UB has good backups in Sweet Home product Jordan Johnson and Devin Campbell. UB has a big-time recruit in Johnathan Hawkins of Georgia coming in the summer.
• Receiver: UB is strong at the skill positions. Wideout returnees include Ron Willoughby, Jacob Martinez, Marcus McGill, Jamarl Eiland and Malcolm Robinson. Collin Lisa, a sophomore transfer from Alabama-Birmingham, has good hands. The top two tight ends, Matt Weiser and Mason Schreck, are back.
• Offensive line: Senior John Kling, last year’s right tackle, is playing left tackle. Left guard is former starter Dillon Guy, a senior who sat out last year due to injury. Sophomore Brandon Manosalvas and redshirt freshman James O’Hagan have rotated at center. Manosalvas and Todd Therrien have rotated at right guard. Bob Blodgett, who had a fine year last season at guard, has worked at right tackle. There probably will be a lot of rotation on the O-line as the coaches seek the best combinations. The second string has been, left to right, Andy Fidler, Tyler O’Henly, O’Hagan, Matt Murphy and Albert McCoy.
• Defensive line. The top two defensive tackles, juniors Max Perisse and Brandon Crawford, started a lot last season. Sophomore Chris Ford and prep-school recruit Christian Gonzalez, who enrolled in January, have been on the second string.
• Linebacker: The starters have been Okezie Alozie, Nick Gilbo and Jarrett Franklin. Alozie and Franklin are returning starters, and Gilbo played a lot. Kyril Threats, Travis Pitzonka and Brandon Berry have worked second string.
• Defensive backs: Boise Ross and Marqus Baker are the top corner tandem, backed by redshirt freshmen Brandon Williams and Terrance Wilson. UB lost both starting safeties. Junior Houston Glass and sophomore Ryan Williamson have started, backed by sophomore Andrews Dadeboe and junior William Rembert.
Surprisingly, UB did not lose a single player from last year’s roster to transfer. When there’s a change in coaches, there’s almost always a few defections of players who look for a better fit elsewhere or who are run off the squad.
“That’s accepting change and transition, which is a credit to these young men and their maturity in handling the situation,” Leipold said. “I think it speaks to their experience at the University of Buffalo on our campus, and their work with Greg Pyszczynski in the weight room, too. Those are all positives. Not to have attrition during a change is very uncommon.”