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UB Season Preview: Tyree Jackson & young recruits put pizzazz into Bulls program

He’s 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds with a cannon arm and running ability. What more do you need to know?

Tyree Jackson is the exciting prospect set to take over at quarterback for the University at Buffalo.

UB coach Lance Leipold will name his starter for Friday’s season opener against Albany later this week. Whether it’s Jackson or senior transfer Grant Rohach for Week One doesn’t really matter.

Jackson is The Man, sooner rather than later, for the Bulls. He will take over a position occupied for the last 3 1-2 years and 40 games by UB’s career passing leader, Joe Licata.

Jackson is the No. 1 reason to be excited about watching UB football this season. The red-shirt freshman from Michigan is that kind of impressive-looking prospect.

It’s just Year Two of Leipold’s building project. UB is not favored to have a winning record and make a bowl game this season. In the big picture, that doesn’t really matter, either.

If Jackson shows the kind of promise he has showed in training camp and Leipold’s young recruits of the past two years keep emerging, UB fans will be excited about their program.

Here’s a breakdown of the prospects for the 2016 Bulls:

OFFENSE

Projected starters: QB Tyree Jackson, RB Jordan Johnson, WR Marcus McGill, WR Malcolm Robinson, WR Kamathi Holsey, TE Mason Schreck, LT Roubbens Joseph, LG Brandon Manosalvas, C James O’Hagan, RG David Goldsby, RT Tyler O’Henly.

Key backups: QB Grant Rohach, RB Johnathan Hawkins, WR K.J. Osborn, WR Jamarl Eiland, WR Anthony Johnson, TE Tyler Mabry, G Tomas Jack-Kurdyla, G-C Brad Rowland, G-T Albert McCoy, G Connor Morehart, T Evin Ksiezarczyk.

Run game: UB has a high-quality back in Johnson, the 220-pound senior from Sweet Home. He ran for 12 TDs and 4.7 yards a carry last year. The question is the blocking. The offensive line lost three starters from last year and has graduated six standout veterans over the past two years. Manosalvas and O’Hagan are returning starters. Are the tackles good enough? They’ll be helped by the mobility of the QBs. Jackson and Rohach are going to have to keep some drives alive with their feet. UB ranked 10th in the MAC in rush attempts last year. That number will go up. Hawkins has the talent to be a dynamic complement to Johnson.

Pass game: Leipold and offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki run a read-option, spread attack and get the QB on the move. That offense didn’t ideally fit Licata. Jackson and Rohach have the legs to keep edge rushers honest and get outside the pocket. UB lost its top two receivers from last year, Ron Willoughby and Matt Weiser. McGill is a sturdy, run-after-the-catch threat. The senior from Rochester is the No. 1 weapon, and he’s most valuable out of the slot. He had 50 catches for 581 yards last year. UB is counting on Robinson, a senior from Canton, Ohio, to stretch the field. Holsey and Johnson are exciting junior college transfers. UB really needs one or both to make an impact. Defenses better protect deep, because Jackson can sling it. Will the QBs have time to throw? How quickly can Jackson develop patience in the pocket and spot receivers getting open late in the down?

Analytics: The Bulls were second last in the MAC in runs of 10-plus and 20-plus yards. But it wasn’t all the fault of the run game. The Bulls could not stretch the field in the pass game, so defenses were unafraid to creep up on the run. . . . UB used three-wides 60 percent and two-TEs 27 percent last year. The two-TE probably will be used less, but the emergence of Mabry, a red-shirt freshman, could change that. Mabry had a good training camp. . . . UB was the most pass-heavy team in the MAC last year, throwing 54.7 percent.

DEFENSE

Projected starters: DE Brandon Crawford, DT Max Perisse, DT Chris Ford, DE Demone Harris, OLB Jarrett Franklin/Brandon Berry, MLB Khalil Hodge, OLB Ishmael Hargrove, CB Boise Ross, CB Cameron Lewis, S Ryan Williamson, S Dev Lamour.

Key backups: DT Remaine Douglas, DT Justin Brandon, DE Charles Harris, DE Torey Hendrick, DE Randy Anyanwu, DE Myles Nicholas, DE Wes Scott, OLB Jordan Collier, CB Cameron Skipworth, CB Brandon Williams, S Andrews Dadeboe.

Run defense: Defensive line is UB’s deepest and most talented position. The 315-pound Ford and 285-pound Perisse form an active, stout middle twosome. With the 275-pound Crawford as an edge-setting end, the run front should be sturdy. Look for Douglas, a 303-pound senior transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette, to make a big impact. He looked great in training camp. Brandon, a sophomore from Indiana, is a talented penetrator and disruptor. He saw the fifth most DL snaps last year (29 a game). Both Harrises have the body types to be top-third DEs in the MAC, if they keep improving. At linebacker, Franklin and Berry both play the outside spot on the short side of the field, and they’ll share time. Berry made second-team all-MAC last year. Franklin, a solid starter in 2014, missed last year with a back injury. The new middle linebacker is the 240-pound Hodge, a sophomore who led the state of California two years ago in tackles with 262 in 14 games.

Pass defense: Ross is UB’s best defensive player. He ranked fifth in the nation last year in passes defensed. He and Lewis, a sophomore, form a good cornerback duo. Safety was a weakness last year and must improve. Williamson is a junior, Lamour just a red-shirt freshman. Does UB have enough edge rushing? Senior end Torey Hendrick is the designated speed rusher who could make a big impact. The New Jersey native at one time was committed to Iowa and held offers from Arizona State and Kansas. He had to go to junior college and sat out last season after transferring to UB. If he plays well, UB could have a top-four D-Line in the MAC.

Analytics: UB got only 10 of its 22 sacks last year without blitzing. Coordinator Brian Borland will dial up creative pressures and is more aggressive than his predecessor, Lou Tepper. But Borland is not a gambler. Tepper blitzed 27 percent of pass plays in 2014 and rushed three men 58.6 percent. Borland blitzed 24.5 percent and rushed three 6 percent, according to News statistics. . . . Buffalo ranked 10th in the MAC in tackles for loss last year with 65. The front seven needs to be more disruptive.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Projected starter: K Adam Mitcheson, P Kyle DeWeen, LS Corbin Grassman.
Key backup: Taylor Sheets.

Mitcheson was 13 of 19 on field-goal tries as a freshman last year, but two kicks were blocked. He looks more confident this year. The punting job is up for grabs. DeWeen, a Niagara Falls product who transferred from Erie Community College, looks like he has an edge on Sheets, a true freshman from South Carolina. Sheets is the long-term answer, and he may kick off. Eiland is the top punt returner. McGill, Reed, Hawkins and Eiland are kick return prospects.

OUTLOOK

If all goes well, UB will have four home wins in the first six games (Albany, Army, Kent State and Ball State). But the Bulls could go 0-6 on the road, and the second half of the schedule is rugged. Given the youth on the team, how the Bulls look is what’s most important this season. Is the increased speed and athleticism Leipold has recruited showing up on game day? And is Jackson flashing the brilliance everyone expects? Look for a second straight 5-7 finish.

UB position-by-position preview (all installments below)

UB Preview: Young offensive line will have to mesh in a hurry

UB Preview: Lots of ability, lots of questions for Bulls at WR

UB Preview: Jordan Johnson should add to Bulls RB tradition

UB Preview: Tyree Jackson brings the excitement to Bulls offense

UB Preview: Boise Ross leads still-young secondary unit

UB Preview: Bulls hope Berry-Franklin combo makes LBs stronger

UB Preview: Defensive line is deeper than ever

UB Preview: Bulls are young on special teams, too

More from our college football preview:

Why the MAC works as a football conference -- and for UB

MAC Attack: The conference's best NFL players at each position

How Leipold is molding UB for quick and lasting success

UB Season Preview: Tyree Jackson & young recruits put pizzazz into Bulls program

Sizing up UB's schedule: Who to watch on the other sideline & which team should win

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