The middle of the field has been an unproductive zone for the University at Buffalo wide receivers.
It’s partly due to philosophy and partly due to the fact the Bulls have a new quarterback and a mostly new receiving corps that has struggled to produce through the early part of the football season.
The Bulls (1-4) will try to get their passing game going Saturday when they play host to Ball State (3-3) in a Mid-American Conference game at 3:30 p.m. at UB Stadium.
UB ranks 11th out of 12 in the MAC in pass offense, averaging only 156 yards a game. UB’s wide receivers have combined for only 40 catches. That’s one fewer than the team with the next-lowest wideout total – run-oriented Kent State. It’s a whopping 22 fewer than the MAC team that’s 10th in wideout catches – Miami Ohio (when adjusted for the fact UB has played one fewer game).
The Bulls have taken a conservative pass approach with quarterback Tyree Jackson, the 6-foot-7 red-shirt freshman.
They much prefer to work outside the numbers of the field than the middle in order to avoid interceptions. Jackson has thrown only two pickoffs this year.
The Bulls’ wideouts do run in-breaking routes. They run short slants and hitch routes inside the numbers. They run deep post patterns. Tight end Mason Schreck has been effective running seam routes and hitches in the middle of the field.
But the UB wideouts generally don’t run crossing routes or “drag” routes across the middle. They don’t criss-cross over the middle.
It’s an approach UB may have to reconsider as it searches for ways to jump-start the attack.
It’s no surprise that UB’s pass offense has taken a step back from last year after graduating all-time pass leader Joe Licata.
Like any young QB, Jackson is undergoing on-the-job training. He’s not going to read defenses and work through his receiver progressions late in the down like Licata did.
But Jackson’s accuracy has not been awful, even though he’s only completing 50.7 percent of his passes. He does not skip passes into the ground. The balls aren’t flying way over receivers’ heads on out routes, as one might expect with a freshman starter. Kent State had nine pass breakups in last week’s game. Some might have been on the wrong shoulder of the receiver, but they were close to the target.
Jackson has managed the offense reasonably well.
“The thing I’ve been impressed with Tyree is no matter what the score, no matter what’s happened I think he comes off each time explaining what he’s seeing,” Leipold said. “He doesn’t have that deer-in-the-headlight look. Tyree knows he continues to take steps, and he needs to take them.”
Even last season, however, UB didn’t work the middle of the field a lot with its wide receivers. The clear emphasis for Licata was outside the numbers, and crossing routes were minimal. Tight end Matt Weiser had a great year, a lot of it in the middle of the field. But shifty slot receiver Collin Lisa arguably was under-utilized.
The middle-of-the-field issue is not to suggest UB’s pass offense can’t be highly productive outside the numbers.
UB wideouts have struggled against press-man coverage.
“We’ve got to do a lot better job of getting off of coverage,” Leipold said. “We’re not doing a great job creating separation right now. We’ve got to do a better job in the run game. All these things kind of feed off each other.”
UB needs to find a way to get slot receiver Marcus McGill more involved. He has 14 catches for 183 yards. He’s not cat quick in the mold of NFL slot receiving stars like Wes Welker or Julian Edelman. But McGill is a freight train with the ball in his hands after the catch, as he showed in taking a receiver screen for 49 yards at Nevada. UB could use more plays like that and plays in which McGill catches the ball on the move.
Outside receivers Malcolm Robinson and Kamathi Holsey, both first-time starters, have shown flashes but been inconsistent. Holsey has nine catches, Robinson eight.
The Bulls are overdue to hit a deep ball. Jackson is 0 for 19 on deep sideline passes, mostly go routes, according to News statistics. Some of them have been overthrows. Some have been due to the receiver not getting a clean release off the line. Four have been dropped. Jackson has hit four deeper completions along the sideline of between 18 and 30 yards on back-shoulder throws or in the window of a zone.