The shadow of Khalil Mack looms over the University at Buffalo in many good ways and one bad way.
The Oakland Raiders All-Pro sackmaster obviously is UB's most famous football alumnus. He's a source of pride for everyone who cares about the Bulls. Two mannequins sporting Mack's No. 46 are front and center in the UB football offices as an unquestionable recruiting tool.
The bad shadow of Mack: UB's defense still is trying to recover from his departure to the NFL.
In the last three seasons since Mack left, UB ranked 10th, 11th and ninth, respectively, in points allowed in the Mid-American Conference. The run defense was been 12th, 11th and seventh in MAC games. Last year's run defense ranked 124th out of 126 teams in the nation against the run.
Can UB's defense start to come out from under Mack's shadow as Year Three of coach Lance Leipold's tenure begins?
UB returns seven defensive starters, eight if you count Ishmael Hargrove, who will share time at strong-side linebacker. The scheme of defensive chief Brian Borland is familiar to most.
A return to defensive respectability is essential if UB is going to show worthwhile progress in 2017.
"We return the majority of our linebacking corps and secondary and at least good pieces of our defensive line," Borland said. "With the addition of some younger guys stepping up, I think we’ll hopefully be further ahead of where we were last year."
The run defense needs to keep UB in games. Last year UB allowed a school-record 253 yards a game on the ground.
Better team speed has been the focus for Leipold since he arrived. A lack of it was a big reason former athletic director Danny White fired former coach Jeff Quinn.
"From the day I had my first conversation about this job, it was what were we going to do to get more speed and quickness in our program?" Leipold said. "Team defensive speed is something we've worked on since the day we arrived. It's not something that gets fixed immediately. We continue to address it in recruiting."
UB allowed 10 runs of 40-plus yards last season. Only seven teams allowed more.
Leipold cautions it's not all on the defense, which almost never played with a lead during last year's 2-10 campaign.
UB's offense ranked last in the MAC and 126th in the nation in scoring at 16.5 ppg last season.
The Bulls think they have a more explosiveness on offense with the emergence of receiver Anthony Johnson and running back Emmanuel Reed, among others.
"How do you keep your defense off the field?" Leipold said. "Sometimes it's maybe being conservative so you can chew up a little more clock. But the flipside for us to be better defensively is we do have to be better offensively. I think we have a few more weapons on the outside. We have to be more aggressive. We have to try to outscore some people."
UB is picked for fifth out of six in the East Division of the MAC. Nobody outside the Bulls locker room expects a bowl appearance this season. Improvement is the mission for 2017. Here's a capsule preview of the team:
Top 3 players
1. QB Tyree Jackson (No. 3). The 6-foot-7, 245-pound sophomore is worth the price of admission. Big arm. Mobile for a tall man. Unselfish. Charismatic. He led a comeback upset of Army last season and had three 250-plus-yard passing days. UB had a weak receiving corps. Jackson averaged 190 yards passing per game (adjusted) and 53 percent completions. Let's see those numbers get up to 220 and 58 percent.
2. MLB Khalil Hodge (No. 4). He ranked seventh in the nation in tackles per game (10.25) last season and made second-team all-MAC. The 6-1, 235-pound junior from the Oakland area is a prototypical middle linebacker in terms of strength and demeanor. He's an alpha-dog tackling machine.
3. C James O'Hagan (No. 77). He's the anchor of the offensive line with 24 career starts, every game the last two seasons. The Long Island native has size (6-3, 305) and agility. He was the national heavyweight wrestling champion as a high school senior.
1. WR production. Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki has overseen two poor seasons. He got markedly less production out of Joe Licata in 2015 (vs. 2014), and last year was awful, admittedly under tough circumstances. Time for the offense to giddy-up. The No. 1 threat is junior Anthony Johnson, who has size and 4.44 speed in the 40. He could be the break-out player of the season, the No. 2 talent behind Jackson. Big wideout Kamathi Holsey struggled last year but has the size to be decent, at least. Kotelnicki prefers to work outside the numbers. Will UB work the middle of the field more? Seniors Jacob Martinez and Jamarl Eiland could be effective from the slot. Two young players from Florida – sophomore K.J. Osborn and red-shirt freshman Antonio Nunn – look ready to contribute. Nunn is an explosive athlete. Red-shirt freshman TE Zac Lefebvre is going to be another Matt Weiser-Mason Schreck but may be a year away. In fact, the entire passing game probably still is a year away.
2. Replace Jordan Johnson. The big back from Sweet Home High ranked fourth in the MAC with 1,040 yards rushing last season. UB has recruited well at the position the last three years. Time to see how well. Junior Johnathan Hawkins (Georgia) can run inside and outside but missed a lot of offseason work coming back from a shoulder injury. Sophomore Emmanuel Reed (Florida) is only 5-6 but he has big-play ability as a change-of pace and third-down back. Red-shirt freshmen Kameron Pickett (Georgia) and Theo Anderson (Florida) have talent. The reliability here is a mystery. This group will have to grow up in a hurry.
3. Improvement on the O-line. Four players who have played a lot return as starters. Besides O'Hagan, they are guards Brandon Manosalvas and Tomas Jack-Kurdyla and right tackle David Goldsby. Sophomore Evin Ksiezarczyk (West Seneca East) appears to have beaten out Rutgers transfer Jacquis Webb for the left tackle spot. In past years UB had to hold its breath, hoping starters didn't get injured. The depth is better now. The O-line should be decent.
1. Better run-stopping. A lot of players return, but are they good enough? The starting defensive tackles – 310-pound senior Chris Ford and 305-pound junior Justin Brandon – should be pretty good. Depth behind them looks thin. Red-shirt freshman Jake Fuzak (Williamsville South) has a great body. He may have to get backup snaps ahead of schedule. New wide-side outside linebacker Jordan Collier will be counted upon to chase down more plays. UB had a terrible time stopping QB option runs. Borland must solve that problem. The No. 7 MAC run defense allowed 187 yards a game last year. Can UB get down to that total?
2. Who rushes the passer? The starting defensive ends are senior Demone Harris, the former walk-on from Timon-St. Jude, and junior Charles Harris. How good is their edge rushing? Neither are quick-twitch guys but it's hard to tell since foes passed so little last season. The best hope for a NASCAR-style speed rusher is 6-3 freshman Malcolm Koonce, a long-armed Peekskill product who spent last year at a top prep school. Hargrove is a good blitzer. This is an area of concern.
3. Steadier at safety. Inexperienced safeties being overaggressive and getting caught out of position has been a problem the last two years. Ryan Williamson now is a senior with 24 starts and 35 games played. It's his time to become a top-six safety in the MAC. The other safety, senior Tim Roberts, had a good offseason and should be better after starting 10 games last year. There are a bunch of promising defensive backs in the freshman and sophomore classes. How fast can they emerge?
Jackson alone makes UB worth watching, and there's enough talent around him that the Bulls should be competitive and interesting. UB loyalists are used to being patient after only two winning years in 19 seasons at the top level of college football. This team still looks a year away. At least four wins and close MAC games are a must. That would set the Bulls up for potential bowl seasons in Jackson's final two years. Three wins would be bad. Call it 4-8.