The University at Buffalo football team is hoping familiarity breeds more success as it takes part in spring practice.
When the Bulls convened for training camp last August, they had 42 newcomers on their 105-man roster and were rated the fourth most inexperienced team in the nation. They had only nine red-shirts from the season before joining the active roster, and they did not know who was going to start at quarterback.
There has been a lot less turnover this offseason. The Bulls have just 10 newcomers on the field for spring ball. About 16 more new scholarship players, mostly freshmen, will join the program in August. UB has 19 players eligible this year who spent last season practicing as red-shirts or transfers. And promising sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson is back as the starter after a full-season of action under his belt.
“We return a lot of players,” said Jackson after Tuesday’s workout at the Bills’ ADPRO Sports Training Center. “We’re not really teaching, we’re just going out there and repping stuff. Guys know where they’re going and we’re not spending too much time on the basic stuff. We’re trying to add more and more to the offense and get guys the ball.”
“The learning curve is smaller,” said middle linebacker Khalil Hodge. “We’re flying around a lot faster.”
Will more familiarity produce improvement over last season’s disappointing 2-10 record?
“Obviously last year was a year and a situation that we never want to go through again,” said UB coach Lance Leipold. “We have to get better. We have to do a better job. I have to do a better job.”
“The thing that I’ve seen in seven practices is I believe we have a chance to be a better team, a more explosive team. We have to go out and prove it.”
UB is six practices into spring ball. There are seven practices to go over the next three weeks. Practices are closed to the public.
Stronger up front: The offensive line was a weakness last year. It should be much improved. The new left tackle is 6-foot-6, 344-pound junior Jacquis Webb, a Rochester native who sat out last season after transferring from Rutgers. He looks like an anchor on Jackson’s blind side. Senior Brandon Manosalvas is back at left guard. Junior James O’Hagan is back at center, and could be one of the better pivots in the Mid-American Conference. There’s a lot of competition at right guard, including Skylar Hartley, Tomas Jack-Kurdyla and junior college transfer Brad Rowland. Senior David Goldsby, who started along the line all 12 games last year, was working as the first-team right tackle Tuesday. Paul Nosworthy, who sat out last year as a transfer from Grambling, was working as second-team left tackle. He’s a strong contender for somewhere in the top seven of the rotation.
New runners: The Bulls graduated outstanding back Jordan Johnson, who ranked fourth in the MAC in rushing. But they have recruited well at running back and should have a good rotation. Junior Johnathan Hawkins, who gained 338 yards as Johnson’s backup last year, tops the depth chart. He’s joined by promising red-shirt freshmen Kamerion Pickett of Georgia and Theo Anderson of Florida. Sophomore Emmanuel Reed is in the mix.
Spring focus: “The things we’re looking at right now early are defensively we have to find some more depth and answers on the defensive line and in the secondary,” Leipold said. “I’m pleased where we’re heading at linebacker. I think offensively, you can tell that we have some experience in this offense.”
“It’s the first spring we haven’t had to start again with a quarterback,” Leipold said. “Joe Licata was not available our first spring here” due to injury. “Then we had a quarterback battle last spring. Now with Tyree back, and even Drew Anderson has done a nice job, we’ve been able to hit the ground running on the offensive side this year.”
Turnover: There was very little attrition from last year’s roster. The careers of both offensive tackle Tyler O’Henly, due to be a senior, and cornerback Cameron Skipworth, due to be a sophomore, ended due to concussions. Running back Zach Nicholas, who did not have a carry last year, transferred.
On scholarship: Niagara Falls product Kyle DeWeen walked on last season as a transfer from Erie CC and won the punting job. He will be a senior this season and was put on scholarship. He will compete again with sophomore Taylor Sheets for the punting duties.
Spring Game: Then the Bulls will hold their annual Blue & White Spring Game at 7 p.m. April 14 at UB Stadium. That’s free and open to the public.