To say that Brian Borland has an overhaul on his hands is not doing it justice.
The new defensive coordinator for the University at Buffalo began his overhaul-with-a-capital-O project this week when his cast of defenders hit the field for spring practice.
UB is switching schemes from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3 defensive front.
The Bulls allowed 31.5 points a game last year. They ranked 125th out of 128 in the nation in big plays allowed.
They lost seven defensive starters to graduation.
“It’s big,” Borland said after Friday’s practice. “We’ve taken a lot of players, and they’re playing different positions from what they did previously. Some safeties are playing outside linebacker, some linebackers are playing defensive end. Some defensive ends have moved more inside.
“It has been a transition for everybody. We’ve tried to identify what guys’ strengths are and try to match it to what we’re looking for in each of those positions. I feel like we’ve got guys in the right spots. Now they just have to learn, because literally there’s guys putting their hand on the ground for the first time in their life.”
How fast can Borland complete a crash course in his new defense?
“It’s coming along,” he said. “But I’m glad we’re not playing tomorrow.”
New UB head coach Lance Leipold has entrusted his right-hand man from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater with executing the turnaround.
Borland, 52, is a Wisconsin native who spent the past 21 years at Whitewater, the previous 13 as the Warhawks’ defensive coordinator.
Borland’s results are impressive. Whitewater ranked among the top 11 in the nation in Division III in points allowed each of the past eight seasons, during which time it won six national championships.
His defensive line plays an aggressive, one-gap style.
“Our idea up front is to get off the ball and knock guys back,” Borland said. “It’s not just wild get off the ball and run through gaps, it’s get your hands into your man, knock that guy back and move the line of scrimmage and be disruptive.”
Borland will rush five men plenty, but his defense is not a gambling, high-risk scheme. The Warhawks were known for making teams earn scores on long, 10- and 12-play marches.
“I’d say we’re not a big risk-taking defense so that it’s either a hit for loss or a big play,” Borland said. “I don’t think there are a lot of teams capable of taking the ball and maneuvering down the field on a consistent basis without something happening, a penalty, a drop, a fumble, a turnover of some kind. We’re going to try to play consistent, solid and make people earn things. Hopefully you don’t give up a whole lot of yards in the process. But I’d feel better about giving up a couple first downs and getting a stop eventually than allowing somebody to get out the back door on you.”
After a season in which UB gave up 68 plays of 20-plus yards in 11 games (6.2 a game), that probably sounds good to UB fans – if the Bulls can execute it.
“I can’t speak to last year,” he said. “I only know what’s ahead. We’re changing. … I feel it’s a very sound scheme that can line up well against everything. Big plays happen for a lot of different reasons. We’re going to try to be sound, be solid. We’re going to try to limit those things as best we can.”
The defensive playbook and the communication is all new.
“There’s a big terminology shift here,” Borland said. “We’ve consciously tried to not copy words they used in the past because we didn’t want guys to make associations. That meant this last year. It’s a lot. I give our players a lot of credit. I believe our players are going the extra mile to learn all of it.”
Along the front line, UB has to find two new starting defensive ends. Solomon Jackson, Randy Anyanwu and Myles Nicholas, linebackers last year, are among a flock of DE candidates. Prospective starting defensive tackle Brandon Crawford is playing over a guard, as opposed to a tackle last season. Returning starter Okezie Alozie was a hybrid linebacker-safety last year. Now he’s a pure outside linebacker. Ditto for Brandon Berry.
The Bulls probably are OK at linebacker, where the top three (Alozie, Nick Gilbo and Jarrett Franklin) played a lot last year. The secondary needs three new starters, but the top two corners (Boise Ross and Marqus Baker) have shown promise.
A lot will depend on how the front four comes together.
Borland’s view of the talent level?
“It’s a little hard for me to compare because I was coaching at a different level, so all these guys are talented to me,” he said. “I think it’s pretty obvious we have a handful of really good players, and then we’ve got a lot of others guys who are up-and-comers. It’s my job to find the right mix of those players, get our best players on the field and get them in the right spots. That’s a work in progress.”
Borland was inducted Saturday into the Wisconsin Football Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame.