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Hope for UB football starts under center with Tyree Jackson

Tyree Jackson says the moment he stepped on the field for spring practice was the moment he turned the page on the University at Buffalo’s disappointing 2016 season.

“All through winter conditioning, we’re still 2-10,” said Jackson, referring to last year’s record. “But then when spring ball comes around, we finally get a new season. We’ve left that behind now. It’s over. And now we’re focused on this fall.”

Spring football. The season of hope. Jackson arguably represents the No. 1 reason for UB to hope for better results in 2017.

In Jackson, the Bulls have a player who anyone can see has the natural gifts to be one of the better players in his position in the Mid-American Conference. He’s 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds, with a cannon arm.

UB has a ways to go to prove it has enough talent to win at a bunch of different positions on the field. Quarterback is not one of them.

“There’s a lot to work with,” said new UB quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. “Big kid, obviously. He runs well. He has the arm talent. The strength in his arm is not a problem at all. And he’s a great young man. He wants to learn. He wants to get better.”

Good players typically take a leap forward in their second full season on the field. Jackson got plenty of experience in nine starts as a freshman last year. The Bulls are excited about what he could do come his sophomore season in the fall.

“I definitely can see that step being taken in confidence, production and leadership,” said UB coach Lance Leipold after the Bulls’ practice Saturday.

Last spring, Jackson was in a three-way competition for the starting job. This spring, he’s the clear No. 1 and taking all the snaps with the first unit.

“Last year was my first spring, so I was pretty tense,” the Michigan product said. “Every throw you’re thinking about it, because it was a three-way quarterback battle. This year I’m a lot more loose. Coach Z’s here. He’s helped me a ton. He’s helped me make strides. So it’s a better spring by far.”

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Jackson says he has a lot better grasp of what he sees from the defense before the snap and after.

“Pre-snap before Albany,” Jackson said, referring to last year’s season opener, “I was just running the play, making sure I knew where everyone was going. Toward the end of the season, I was looking at safeties, looking at linebackers, checking the plays. So I got more comfortable with experience. And last year we had so many new guys, and we were just learning the basics of the offense. If you look at the playbook last spring to this spring, it’s completely different.”

“When you’re a freshman and you get thrown into the first game right away,” Zebrowski said, “you will go through growing pains, unless you’re on an established, 10-win team and you can lean on the rest of the team. I think what he went through last year is only going to help this year. Every rep he took last year gave him a chance to see what was going on.”

Growing pains is one way to describe UB’s offense, which ranked 126th of 128 teams in scoring last season. Jackson averaged a modest 180 passing yards a game and a below-par 53 percent completions in his starts last season. He had nine TD passes and nine interceptions. The UB receiving corps and offensive line weren’t good enough, and the offense lacked an identity.

Yet Jackson showed enough flashes of talent to create excitement. In his second start, he rallied UB from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to an overtime upset of Army. He threw a lot of pretty deep posts (a few of which were caught). He rushed for 459 yards and 5.3 yards a carry (not counting sacks). And he carried himself with poise. He looked in charge, even during lopsided defeats.

“He learns football fast,” said Zebrowski, who served with Leipold at Division III and then spent five years as QB coach at Minnesota. “He’s terrific with all the communication. I call it the orchestrating, which is a big part. He did it last year, and Andy Kotelnicki did a great job with him. He orchestrates tremendously. He makes the right checks. He gets the guys lined up. He puts us in the right plays. He’s terrific at that.”

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Zebrowski is working on Jackson’s footwork.

“In the gun, we run a lot of quick game, and sometimes my feet die,” Jackson said. “I’ve got to work on keeping them active and pointing them toward my target.”

“Most young quarterbacks with a strong arm, their feet will get close together and sometimes when they throw they will stride long,” Zebrowski said. “Once you stride long, you get long; your throwing motion gets long.”

A tighter, balanced throwing motion means better accuracy.

UB also could help Jackson’s completion percentage by giving him more quick outlet options. Last season, UB running backs combined for only 30 catches. Leipold said he wants that number to go up.One thing statistics don’t show are a quarterback’s leadership ability. Leipold said Jackson’s accountability and refusal to make excuses were an asset last year.

“Especially for a young quarterback and the way our season went, he didn’t deflect,” Leipold said. “He took it on. That’s what you need out of your quarterback. That’s a great sign of things to come.”

New WR shines: The Bulls held a scrimmage that lasted 88 plays at UB Stadium Saturday. New receiver Anthony Johnson, a junior college transfer who sat out last season, was the big playmaker. He caught a 12-yard fade pass from No. 2 QB Drew Anderson for a TD in the back right corner of the end zone, doing a good job of getting his feet down in bounds. He also caught a 45-yard pass from freshman No. 3 QB Kyle Vantrease for a TD on a skinny-post route. It was a 20-yard throw and a 25-yard run after the catch.

Young RBs: Incumbent starting running back Johnathan Hawkins and sophomore Emmanuel Reed have sat out scrimmage work this far this spring recovering from an injury. That has given two red-shirt freshmen, Theo Anderson and Kameron Pickett, a lot of carries. They both showed good instincts. Anderson broke a third-and-1 run for 34 yards early in the scrimmage. Later he followed good blocking on a third-and-2 play for 27 yards off left tackle, getting behind big lineman Jacquis Webb. He went 12 yards off left end with a read-option run on the next play. Jackson did a good job reading the defense at the mesh point. Jackson ran a read-option keeper off right end on the next play for a 2-yard TD. Anderson also went 13 yards with a swing pass.

“They’re getting great work,” Leipold said of the two red-shirt freshman backs. “Theo’s had a nice spring, he’s running with good physicality. Both of them show some quickness in space. I think they’re going to add to the position.”

Extra Points: The first-team defense got the better of the first-team offense in the scrimmage. Sophomore Jeremiah Dadeboe, had an interception over the middle on a Vantrease throw. Red-shirt freshman linebacker Kadofi Wright showed some playmaking from the outside. He had a 5-yard tackle for loss on a blitz and made a nice breakup on a pass for tight end Zac Lefebvre. Red-shirt freshman receiver Antonio Nunn had catches for 10, 15 and 2 yards. . . . Starting defensive ends Demone and Charles Harris both sat out full-contact work. With them down, the starting defensive line was Myles Nicholas and Wes Scott at ends and Chris Ford and Justin Brandon at tackles. . . . Adam Mitcheson made field goals of 40 and 37 yards. . . . Other TDs came from: senior back Michael Forman on a 13-yard run; senior receiver Chris Spell on a 19-yard pass from Anderson; and junior tight end Andrew Gray on a 21-yard pass from Todd Larocca.

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