Lance Leipold will see a familiar face on the opposite sideline Thursday night against Minnesota, but P.J. Fleck is coaching a new team with a new staff that complicates preparations for UB leading up to its season opener.
Fleck, who rose to coaching stardom after taking Western Michigan from 1-11 in his first year in 2013 to 13-1 last season, took the Gophers' head-coaching job this season and presents a daunting task for the Bulls in their first step to turnaround last season's 2-10 misery.
Minnesota's offensive line coach, Ed Warinner, came from Ohio State. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith joined the Gophers from Arkansas. Leipold will watch not only Minnesota film, but tape on Western Michigan, the Buckeyes and Arkansas to try and best anticipate any angle Fleck will come at UB Thursday night.
"That's gonna be important at least in the first quarter, first half so we get a feel of what their identity is gonna be as they approach it," Leipold said.
Leipold specifically highlighted Minnesota's running back tandem of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. In 2016, the Gophers went 9-1 when Smith scored and 6-1 when Brooks found the end zone. Smith tallied 1,158 yards on the ground from 240 rushes last season and reached the end zone 16 times, good for third-most in a single season for UM. After Brooks missed the first three games of 2016 due to injury, he rattled off 650 rushing yards on 138 attempts and five scores while catching another two touchdowns.
The Bulls' run defense ranked 124th of 126 teams in the country last year, surrendering a program-record 253 yards per game on the ground.
"The two returning running backs are excellent players and I'm sure they'll want to get them on track early and often," Leipold said. "That's gonna be a big test for our defense ... I think overall as a defense we're running better and that's gonna help us."
Leipold was asked what his strongest point of emphasis was this offseason on improving the run defense. Scheme? Personnel? Anything else?
"All of the above," the head coach said.
Tyree Jackson enters Year 2 as starter
Leipold preached how having more experience on his team should translate to something better than a 2-10 record, and that starts with the behemoth under center. Jackson, the 6-foot-7 sophomore who started eight games last season before missing the final two with injury, threw for 1,772 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. His 472 rushing yards were second on the team and he also found the end zone five times on the ground.
"I think it's really just the people around me," Jackson said of how he's improved, first highlighting the return of all but one offensive lineman. "Outside we got some guys that people may not really have heard about yet, but we got some guys that we're really excited about that can make some big plays."
- UB was picked to finish fifth in the Mid-American Conference East Division, ahead of only Kent State. The Bulls' 41 votes were 10th overall out of 12 MAC teams.
- This is the second meeting ever between the Bulls and Gophers. Minnesota won the first matchup on Sept. 21, 2002, 41-17.
- Coaching ties: UB QBs coach Jim Zebrowski was Minnesota's QBs coach from 2011-15. Bulls' offensive line coach Daryl Agpalsa was a UM graduate assistant from 2010-12. Gophers' defensive backs coach Maurice Linguist was the cornerbacks coach for UB from 2012-13.
- The Bulls will face a Fleck-coached team for the second straight road game. Western Michigan beat UB, 38-0, in the second-to-last game of 2016.
- UB is 2-13 all-time against Big Ten opponents.