DETROIT – Members of the University at Buffalo football team returned to Ford Field for the first time in nearly nine months, and UB running back Jaret Patterson said it was a little bittersweet to go back to a place where the Bulls were less than 16 minutes from winning their first Mid-American Conference championship in 10 years.
The loss to Northern Illinois has motivated Patterson as he prepares for his sophomore season, but he knows this isn’t the same UB team as the one that fell, 30-29, in November. Nowhere near it, in fact.
The Bulls know they have to create a new identity, after the program’s most successful season and in the wake of some of its most significant losses.
“Change is different,” Patterson said Tuesday at the MAC football media day. “You look at it, and a lot of guys left, but new guys are going to have to step up. This year, we’re going to be young, and we have a lot of talented guys. Some areas will be stronger than others.”
The Bulls went 10-4 in 2018 but return only nine starters – five on offense, three on defense and one on special teams. UB lost more than 20 players to graduation, to early departures or to transfers, including five players who earned first- or second-team all-MAC honors. Quarterback Tyree Jackson turned pro and signed as an undrafted free agent with the Bills. Wide receiver Anthony Johnson and linebacker Khalil Hodge graduated. Wide receiver K.J. Osborn transferred to Miami (Fla.) and tight end Tyler Mabry transferred to Maryland.
“Our identity is going to be evolving as we work through the first part of the season,” UB coach Lance Leipold said. “Much has been made of some of the players and the experienced players who have left, but lost in that is the development of the guys that are going to be stepping into new or bigger roles.”
The Bulls understand the reality of the new season. Dare they say it, too, but they’re taking on the underdog role.
“A lot of people don’t think we’re going to do the same thing we did last year,” sophomore linebacker James Patterson said. “But we’re hoping we can do the same thing, and pick up where we left off.”
That’s not going to be an easy task, either. UB has to determine a quarterback, has to strengthen an inexperienced wide receiving corps, and has to replenish its secondary.
The Bulls, however, have experience on the offensive and defensive lines, and return the running back tandem of Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks, who combined for 1,858 yards and 27 touchdowns last season.
“The battle at quarterback and wide receiver is going to be a good one,” Leipold said, noting that Kyle Vantrease, Dominic Johnson and Matt Myers will compete for the starting spot. “But the mixing and matching is something we have to do a good job of, as coaches, because we have so many uncertainties on the outside.”
As one of the Bulls’ de facto leaders this year, James Patterson has advice to the newcomers, including 23 true freshmen and junior-college transfers. He emphasizes patience in the learning process, just what he learned as a freshman who joined the Bulls in January 2018.
“They’re eager to learn and ready to work, and that’s really good, but I’ve got to tell them to slow down sometimes,” said James Patterson, who had 77 tackles as a freshman in 2018. “I have to tell them, ‘You’re going to get there, relax.’ ”
While the Bulls haven’t named captains for the 2019 season, which begins July 31 with preseason practices and opens at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 against Robert Morris, Jaret Patterson said the mindset for UB’s identity starts with the leadership within the team, including the example set by the players the Bulls will replace.
“Look at the guys who came before us, and how they elevated the program,” he said. “Take the program to another step. Seeing what those guys did, we have to make our own legacy and our own tradition, and take it to the next level. It’s going to be difficult, but with a lot of hard work and dedication, it’s going to get done.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a long-term project. Once this team gets the confidence and knows that it’s going to be a good team, we know this could be a special year.”