University at Buffalo football coach Lance Leipold enters 2019 with a little more job security, after agreeing to a contract extension that runs through December 2023.
But Leipold and the Bulls face some uncertainty as they prepare for spring practices, which open March 3, and the 2019 season, which opens Aug. 31 when the Bulls host Robert Morris at UB Stadium.
Following a 10-4 season that included the Mid-American Conference East Division championship, a berth in the MAC title game and the Bulls’ first bowl appearance since 2013, 20 seniors or fifth-year seniors left the program. Quarterback Tyree Jackson declared for the NFL Draft, and wide receiver K.J. Osborn joined Miami (Fla.) as a graduate transfer.
In a recent conversation with The News, after UB announced Leipold’s contract extension, the fourth-year Bulls coach discussed several topics, including how he is preparing for 2019, the departures of Jackson and Osborn, the role that James and Jaret Patterson will take as sophomores, and how Leipold hopes the Bulls’ success in 2018 could impact the next recruiting cycle. This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.
BN: It’s been a busy offseason, since the end of the bowl game. After going through all that, what is your program’s approach as it prepares for spring practices and the 2019 season?
Leipold: The season didn’t end the way we wanted to, but something that was lost was, really, what we truly accomplished, in the big picture of it. We played the bowl game (on Dec. 22), it’s near Christmas, everybody departs and then we had some things transpire during the break.
But now the players are back here, they’re in school, we’re in the winter conditioning program, they’re building their routines again, and now it’s time to get excited. Whether we had won those games, whether certain players had come back, this would still be the beginning of the 2019 season.
The one thing is, any time there’s these types of changes, it opens up new opportunities for certain people. And now, we have some young men that are going to get some opportunities that, maybe, they didn’t anticipate a couple months ago.
BN: You’d touched on the departures of quarterback Tyree Jackson and wide receiver K.J. Osborn. Were you surprised by those departures at all, or was this on the horizon for either player?
Leipold: We knew for a while they were both on track to graduate (in December) and in the middle of the season, we had conversations with players.
College football has changed. Young men, they know their options, they know what is out there and for those, it’s hard to be upset about it. You can be disappointed, but the young men did what we wanted them to. They came here and those were two of the most hard-working, model, everything-that-you-wanted-to-do guys. Not only were they all-MAC players, but they were Academic All-MAC players. They got their degrees, and if you’re going to talk about student-athletes and what you want them to do, they came here and worked had and graduated in 3½ years.
Do I wish they were playing for us? Absolutely. But I also wish them nothing but the best, in the future.
BN: Did it surprise you when Tyree said at the Senior Bowl that he never intended to transfer and decided to enter the NFL Draft, even though he put his name into the NCAA transfer portal?
Leipold: No, because that’s what his mother told me right after the games. We’d had conversations. His mother said he was not going to graduate transfer, that he was either declaring (for the NFL Draft) or he was coming back. And she thanked me for everything and she said that those were going to be the options.
BN: You also now have some holes to fill at wide receiver, with Anthony Johnson graduating and Osborn transferring. What do you project for that position?
Leipold: I’m very excited. In all of that, and starting with a guy like Antonio Nunn. With a game like what he had in the bowl game (four catches for 87 yards), it gave everybody a glimpse of some of the flashes he has. Now, he’s going to have a great opportunity as a redshirt junior to be that type of player for us.
Charlie Jones battled a lot of injuries through the season and had to have surgery after the season, but Charlie showed flashes in a lot of games, that he could make big-time catches, contested catches, and I think those are a couple guys.
Again, as we’ve gone through recruiting ... I think when we get midway through camp, some of the people are going to help our football team.
We’re talking about people we do miss, but we have two of the best running backs in the league coming back, Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks; we have a proven running back in Emmanuel Reed, who’s still a highly productive player. We have an all-conference tight end in Tyler Mabry; we have four starting offensive linemen, and five with Jacob Gall coming back, so we may have the most experienced line and tight end and backfield, for a new starting quarterback and wide receivers to get acclimated.
BN: The Patterson brothers, Jaret and James, had breakout seasons as freshmen. What kind of foundation do you see them being for the future of the program?
Leipold: They’ve emerged in a short period of time in being on campus for one year, that they’re going to be the type of leaders on and off the field by how they go about it. They’re well-respected and well-liked on this team, and they’re going to be some of those people who are going to be thrust into some leadership roles, maybe a little sooner than some of us expected, but I know that they’ll embrace it.
BN: Is recruiting different after having such a successful season? Is it helping you at all? Does it carry a certain currency?
Leipold: A little bit, but I think, hopefully, it’s where you want many people to say, ‘It’s going to be this 2020, 2021 class.” For us, we had half the (incoming 2019) class filled before we ever kicked off the season. I hope the season, the win total, the television exposure that we were able to get, that all those things will start helping the 2020 and 2021 classes start to emerge. Support from our administration, you start to stockpile those things, too, whether it’s (linebacker) Khalil Hodge being in the East-West Shrine Game, the two guys in the Senior Bowl (Johnson and Jackson), and all the sudden, all those things, the profile of your program starts to change.
BN: Hodge did not get an invite to the Scouting Combine. Did that surprise you?
Leipold: I don’t know about "surprised." Disappointed. I was told in December that he was on a bubble. I don’t know how that’s determined. I don’t know any more about that. Again, Khalil will work hard. There’s enough people that will recognize and know about Khalil. He’ll have his pro day (March 13 at UB). I know he hasn’t played his last football.
BN: As far as your offseason goes, getting ready for the spring, what is your goal for spring practices?
Leipold: The key is to continue to get better and to build up, in the areas that we have to.
It’ll be no secret, the things we have to do. I don’t see ourselves making any quarterback decisions at the end of spring football. But, of course, we want to make sure we continue to create that competition, to evaluate the situation, and honestly, at this point, I don’t even know who all is healthy to go through spring ball. You have to look at that, a little bit, on how you’re going to go through things. But, again, see where we’re at, at the wide receiver position, and continue to evaluate the quarterbacks (Matt Myers, Kyle Vantrease and Dominic Johnson are on campus; Trevor Bycznski arrives in the summer for training camp).
The quarterback position will be one of a couple things that everyone will be asking about. Our defensive backs, our cornerback position is one, where we lose Tatum Slack and Cam Lewis. I like our depth in replacing Khalil Hodge at linebacker, but I think we have some pieces in place there. We lose a couple defensive ends in Chuck Harris and Myles Nicholas, so for players like Malcolm Koonce and Taylor Riggins, there’s a lot of names for a lot of people to show what they can do.