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Big 4 Mailbag: Bulls success comes down to defense

College sports fans touched on all the pressing issues in this installment of the Big 4 mailbag:

@WNYwatercooler asks: What’s the UB Bulls’ ceiling this football season?

A: The Lance Leipold era at the University at Buffalo can realize its upside in Year One if it can develop a few playmakers on defense.

If that happens, a bowl game is in the cards, meaning the Bulls are in the top five of the Mid-American Conference. I think winning the MAC is an unrealistic outcome, even if all the stars and planets align for Leipold & Co.

UB has a lot of work to do on defense, after losing seven starters from last year’s unit, which wasn’t good enough. I think the scheme of new defensive coordinator Brian Borland will do a better job of limiting big plays. Cornerbacks won’t be left on an island as much, based on what he says and watching spring practices.

But scheme only takes you so far on defense. You need a couple stud athletes to make a play somewhere over the course of a 10-play drive and force a stop. As of this moment, we’re not sure if UB has any playmakers on defense. Who on UB’s defense will enter summer training camp among the top five at their position in the MAC? Nobody.

That doesn’t mean good players won’t emerge. I think Boise Ross, in his first full year at cornerback, could become a top-five MAC corner. He has good ball skills. There is talent across the secondary, but it’s young. Junior Jarrett Franklin is a good, smart outside linebacker. Is he in the top tier in the MAC? Don’t know.

The best defensive end in the spring probably was Solomon Jackson, a sophomore from Georgia. He’s an excellent athlete. He’s only 6-foot-1. We’ll see. The exciting recruit with big upside is 6-4 junior college transfer Torey Hendrick of New Jersey. He had offers from Kansas and Arizona State coming out of high school and had committed to Iowa a year ago before going back to junior college for a second season. He has the prototypical size. If he’s a high-quality edge rusher, everything on defense will look a lot better.

Because it’s a new coaching staff installing new schemes, I think the potential “ceiling” and “basement” for the Bulls are farther apart than most seasons.

David asks: As a longtime UB basketball season-ticket holder, one month ago it appeared as though next season would be even better than this year and the future of the program very bright. Now it looks like things could be heading in the wrong direction and back to the middle of the pack instead of a powerhouse. Your thoughts?

A: I think the future is bright under Nate Oats. He was the right guy for the job. I’m impressed with the assistants he hired and with the connections he seems to have. When you lose a big-name coach like Bobby Hurley, it’s no surprise you will have some defections. I don’t blame Shannon Evans for going to Arizona State. I’ve heard junior college player Maurice O’Field, who gave UB a verbal commitment, has told UB he’s probably going elsewhere. That’s no surprise, since he had been recruited by Arizona State and Maryland.

I think the UB frontcourt will be deeper and at least as good as last year. Juco transfer David Kadiri brings some Xavier Ford-type ability. Nick Perkins, a 6-8 freshman, was a high-quality MAC recruit who can contribute right away. Big men Raheem Johnson and Ikenna Smart (who sat out) are back. All of them will take more pressure off Justin Moss inside.

UB obviously needs more scoring on the perimeter without Evans. There’s a long way to go in recruiting. Wingman Torian Graham still was participating with the team in offseason workouts this spring, but UB hasn’t announced that he has committed. He hasn’t filed any paperwork to officially join the team. Oats needs to have two more good perimeter-shooting options on the roster. Does he need an immediate junior-college impact player? We’ll see. With so many players changing teams across the nation, it could be awhile before a lot of rosters are set.

@RPG18 asks: What’s your opinion on Evans and O’Field possibly going to Arizona State? Gut says it’s not right, but that Hurley doesn’t care.

A: I have no problem with it. Let’s say you change your major and decide to transfer from School A to School B because it has a better nursing program. Why not? Student-athletes should do what’s best for them. However, I will admit it can be risky for a 19-year-old to guess or predict if the grass is greener somewhere else. One good thing for Evans is he’s an honor student. He’s going to graduate no matter what. UB would not have had an oral commitment from O’Field without Hurley, anyway.

Bill in North Buffalo asks: UB seems like it has a lot of good receivers. Will Leipold pass the ball more than last year?

A: No. UB called runs on 51 percent of its plays last season. (This counts sacks and plays in which the QB was forced to scramble as pass calls.) UB has really good running backs, too. Anthone Taylor is one of the best in the MAC. He didn’t get overworked in spring practices, but he looked in good shape and ran great. No. 2 Jordan Johnson is good. UB recruited a big-time prospect in Johnathan Hawkins from Georgia. Everybody seems excited about him. He will contribute as a true freshman.

Based on spring practices, I think the run game scheme will be more varied, too. It was pretty basic last year: inside zone, outside zone. Coach Andy Kotelnicki is going to throw more run looks at defenses.

This isn’t to say UB won’t have a good passing game. It should. Joe Licata threw a school-record 29 TD passes in just 11 games. I just think they will run more than 51 percent.

Wisconsin-Whitewater ran 57 percent of the time last year, which actually is a tad low, considering it won nine games by 24 or more points.

Chuck in Tonawanda asks: Can Jim Baron survive the transfer of Zach Lewis at Canisius?

A: You mean the coach who lost two of his top four players last season to injury and still finished fourth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference? That guy? I think Baron and the Griffs will be fine. They got a good point guard to transfer from Central Connecticut, Malcolm McMillan. He will step right in. They also got an oral commitment from a 6-3 junior college guard from Canada, Kiefer Douse. Guard Kassius Robertson is ready for a bigger role. It’s reasonable to think guard Adam Weir will improve his confidence next season. Lewis is a talent, but I don’t get his decision. He shot 31 percent from three-point range and 33 percent overall last season. Given his habit of fading away on his shot, I’m not sure that’s going way up.