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UB football faces something new in 2018 – expectations

The halls on the side of UB Stadium are lined with photos of players of the past, many who set program records and others who reached the National Football League, such as star Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack.

But, to be brutally honest, there is not much history to celebrate as the University at Buffalo marks its 20th season at the highest level of college football. UB only has two winning seasons, two bowl appearances and no bowl victories.

So, expectations? The Bulls aren't exactly used to dealing with those. That's what has made the buzz around this season turn heads.

Entering its fourth year under head coach Lance Leipold, UB has accumulated enough talent to draw attention within the Mid-American Conference and nationally. The Bulls were picked to finish second in the MAC East in the preseason poll, trailing only Ohio University. Individually, six players were selected to preseason award watch lists, a program record.

"We can’t focus on what outside people are thinking or saying," Leipold said. "It’s been nice that we’ve been able to put ourselves in a position where expectations are bigger than they have been before and our players are getting some recognition, but it’s still going to be about going out and producing every day.”

Much of the attention is focused on Anthony Johnson, who was named the top returning wide receiver in college football by Pro Football Focus and became the first player in program history to make the Associated Press' preseason All-America list. Johnson ranked second in the nation in receiving yards per game at 113 and third in receiving touchdowns with 14.

"I've been seeing all that stuff, but I don't like reading into it, getting a big head or something," Johnson said at MAC Media Day. "I push myself and work hard to get the best results. I want to be the best, but it takes a lot to be the best."

Johnson is not alone in star power. Quarterback Tyree Jackson was invited to the Manning Passing Academy and worked with consultant and former NFLer Jordan Palmer, famous locally for his tutoring of Bills rookie Josh Allen.

Linebacker Khalil Hodge has developed into a poised leader of the defense and was second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in tackles last season with 154. That represents more than 15 percent of the team's total tackles.

Emmanuel Reed and Johnathan Hawkins make up one of the best one-two running back punches in the MAC.

There's experience, too, as the Bulls return eight starters on offense and seven on defense.

“We have so much talent on our team this year," Hodge said. "There’s a lot more guys than just Tyree, A.J. and myself. I’m glad to see everyone start to be recognized.”

Leipold said 22 NFL teams had stopped by fall camp and four attended Friday's preseason scrimmage.  The first week of camp featured at least one media member patrolling the sidelines at every practice, waiting to ask unfamiliar questions about the heightened expectations for this year, which kicks off Sept. 1 at home against Delaware State.

Leipold knows it's impossible to shield a team entirely from the outside pressure. It's just a matter of not letting that affect the day-to-day routine of the program.

While this attention may be new to the players, it isn't to Leipold. Before he came to UB in 2015, he led one of the great dynasties in Division III, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He won six national championships in an eight-year span from 2007 to 2014, only failing to make a title game appearance once in 2012.

He knows preseason hype means nothing if you don't deliver on it.

"I'm happy for our players that have been put on watch lists, but we haven't played a game since that sixth win last year," Leipold said. "It's just on paper, and you don't win games on paper. You've got to go out and play. ... Those are nice, those are building blocks, but for our football team we have to go out and prove ourselves again."

That message seems to have made an impact on the players. And after last year, the Bulls have a chip on their shoulder.

UB overcame injuries to Jackson, backup Drew Anderson, Hawkins and cornerback Cam Lewis. The team won its last three games to clinch a 6-6 record and earn bowl eligibility for the first time since 2013.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, there were more eligible teams than spots in bowls. UB was one of three eligible programs left out.

“Absolutely, we took that personally," said center James O'Hagan, entering his fourth year as a starter. "I think it was a little bit of a shot on us and a shot on northern football because a lot of the southern schools got into the bowl games when we were left out. I think the big thing is, we’ve got to leave no doubt. We can’t leave it up to a committee to decide whether we should be in a bowl game of not this year."

"That kind of stuck with us," Jackson said. "We’ve got a lot of guys that are really hungry.”

•••

Three keys to the season

1. Let Anthony Johnson loose. Johnson made a habit of personally decimating secondaries in his first year with the Bulls after transferring from Iowa Western Community College. He recorded six games with 140 or more receiving yards, the most in Division I football. After a year like that, he won't surprise anyone anymore. MAC coaches said at the conference's media day that they'll tailor their defensive schemes to shut down Johnson, so he should expect plenty of double teams. Leipold said the team needs to figure out creative ways to get the ball to their best player, whether that means putting him at different spots on the outside or even getting him touches from the backfield. It also would help if another receiving threat emerges to take some off the load off Johnson.

2. Stopping the run. After finishing 124 out of 126 FBS schools against the run in 2016 and allowing a school-record 253 yards per game, UB improved last year to No. 96 and 194.8 yards per game. In the three seasons after Mack's departure, UB was ranked 10th, 11th and ninth in points allowed in the MAC. Last season, UB allowed an average of 24.8 points per game, which was fifth in the MAC. (Remember to take into account that the average is bloated by the 71-68, seven-overtime loss to Western Michigan.) UB also was second in the league in red-zone defense, allowing teams to get points on 74.4 percent of possessions. The next step is preventing teams from prolonging drives on the ground.

3. Keep Tyree Jackson healthy. Jackson has made a name for himself as a dual-threat quarterback, but he ran far less last year after returning from the knee injury that kept him out of four games. Jim Zebrowski, the team's quarterback coach, co-offensive coordinator and passing game coordinator, said working in last year's backup Drew Anderson, a pocket passer, made UB realize it had enough weapons around Jackson to make his scrambling less necessary. They hope that continues. "If you're not as talented as other teams, you have to use something, the quarterback power, the quarterback run game, as an equalizer," Zebrowski said. "Then as you become better ... it helped us as a staff say, 'We don't have to run our quarterback. We can let our running backs run.' It saves us a lot of risk."

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