CANTON, Ohio -- University at Buffalo football coach Lance Leipold thinks his house is getting in order.
In a figurative sense, the family room is not yet fully furnished, and the in-ground pool remains a hole in the back yard. Is the kitchen updated with the finest appliances? Not yet.
But Leipold looks at the basement and sees the cracks in the walls repaired. The windows don’t leak. The squirrels are gone from the attic.
You get the picture, right? Leipold thinks the foundation for success in the Mid-American Conference is in place.
“We are fostering a culture of competition daily within the program,” Leipold said. “You’ve got to know that the guy who is your backup or backups are going to compete with you daily. I’ve got to come out and work today to win my role on the team.”
“We have some stability now,” Leipold said. “We still have some open positions, but we feel a lot better about where we’re at.”
UB is coming off a 2-10 season. It’s no surprise the Bulls were picked for fifth out of six in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference in the preseason poll released Wednesday.
But after bringing in three recruiting classes of still-young players, Leipold expresses confidence that his third year at the UB helm is going to be better.
A year ago at this time the Bulls, hadn’t settled on a starting quarterback and were reeling from the death of defensive end Solomon Jackson, who had collapsed during a routine offseason conditioning workout.
The MAC is all about player development. There are no five-star recruits who show up a sculpted 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, as they do in the Southeastern Conference.
Leipold says he’s thrilled with the body transformations being made in the second year under strength and conditioning coach Ryan Cidzik.
“Even in the spring, the number of guys that vertical jumped over 30 inches were three to four times as many as last year,” Leipold said. “Guys that bench-pressed over 300 pounds was three to six times better in almost every category that we were testing.”
It should be noted last year’s conditioning numbers were down some because Leipold greatly scaled back the strength program as players coped with the shock of Jackson’s death. Still, Leipold says strength and conditioning is the underpinning to the football program.
“What it shows is the foundation we’re building,” he said. “It shows buy-in. It shows, we feel, our recruiting. We feel our strength coach has things going in the right way that hopefully puts us in position to be better. We know we need to be better than 2-10.”
It would be a surprise if UB had a winning record this season. Leipold’s recruiting classes have been promising. But the senior class, which should be leading the way, is thin.
Only five seniors originally recruited by UB are projected to start this season (that does not include three other seniors who transferred into UB from junior college).
UB is rebuilding on offense. The defense has a lot of experience back but ranked 10th in yards and 12th (last) in points allowed in MAC games last season.
Leipold says the reason to be encouraged on offense starts with 6-foot-7 quarterback Tyree Jackson, the heralded sophomore from Michigan who started nine games last season. What did Leipold see from Jackson in preseason?
“Confidence,” the coach said. “The understanding of the offense. So many times when you’re competing to win a job, it’s so much focus on me doing my job right. You have to be able to command the offense and be confident moving guys around. Those are the things now you see him doing and carrying himself so well.”
Jackson has two good-sized athletes at receiver in junior Anthony Johnson and senior Kamathi Holsey.
UB lost star running back Jordan Johnson but has recruited well at the position. Junior Johnathan Hawkins is the prospective starter, backed up by red-shirt freshmen Theo Anderson and Kameron Pickett and sophomore Emmanuel Reed.
“Running back and corner and sometimes wide receiver are where you can throw a younger guy out there,” Leipold said.
Leipold sees continuity helping the defense, where seven starters return.
“In Year One, we were transitioning from a three-man front to a four-man front,” Leipold said. “Then we go through the loss of Solomon and try to plug in some junior college players. We really didn’t know how unsettling all that would be for two years. But now in Year Three we know. These kids know the calls, know the systems, we’re watching a lot more effective retention, which allows you to expand what you do.”
Leipold also is happy to report some success off the field.
“We had our best grade-point average this last spring of this program’s history since becoming an FBS program,” he said. “It was 2.866, even though we brought in 42 new players. Our administration is happy with that.”
UB’s summer training camp begins Monday.