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Injury bug bites already inexperienced UB wide receivers

The University at Buffalo’s wide receivers continue to be a work in progress, with less than two weeks remaining until the Bulls’ regular-season opener.

The UB football team held its second scrimmage Friday morning, and the Bulls used a rotation of receivers, from junior-college transfers Bernard Porter and Carlton Todd to true freshmen Tyler Stephens and Javien Cuff.

UB’s receiving corps, already decimated by graduation and transfers after the 2018 season, has been hit by injuries in the first 16 days of preseason camp.

“The problem is, we’ve got a lot of receivers hurt,” said UB coach Lance Leipold, whose team opens the season at 7 p.m. Aug. 29 against Robert Morris. “Not only are we throwing some young guys in the fire, we’re making them learn multiple positions now, and that’s put a little extra stress on us this last week. Really, these last three days. Those will be short-term setbacks but long-term gains, that these guys are going to learn multiple receiver positions, and that’s why you see things are a little sloppy.”

Leipold said at least four wide receivers didn’t play in one or both scrimmages this week, including Antonio Nunn and Todd, a junior-college transfer from Texas who played Friday but not last weekend due to a high ankle sprain. Nunn and Jovany Ruiz both have sustained knee injuries during the preseason, and Ruiz, Nunn, Daniel Lee, Jordan Overton and LeMaro Smith all did not participate Friday.

UB’s wide receivers will have a lot to replace, starting with productivity. The Bulls lost their top six receivers from 2018, a group that accrued 2,861 yards and 28 touchdowns, including Anthony Johnson, who is in training camp with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. K.J. Osborn transferred to Miami (Fla.), all-MAC tight end Tyler Mabry transferred to Maryland and Charlie Jones, who would have been the Bulls’ top returning receiver, transferred to Iowa.

Nunn is UB’s top returning receiver, with 142 yards and one touchdown on 11 catches in 2018.

“It’s been well-documented where we’re at, as far as returning players, at the receiver position,” Leipold said. “We had to look at a mixture of players.”

The Bulls have three receivers who will join the roster with junior-college football experience. Porter played for a season at Highland (Kansas) Community College, Todd played for one season at Iowa Central Community College and Lee played for two seasons at Cisco (Texas) College.

“Coach I (Rob Ianello, UB’s wide receivers coach) made it clear that he wanted receivers with college experience,” said Todd, who had 16 receptions for 298 yards and three touchdowns at Iowa Central in 2018. “I knew this was a good chance I’d get thrown in, either at special teams or at wide receiver. But this was a huge opportunity. This was one of my biggest offers that I had.”

Porter and Todd agreed that one of the appeals of coming to UB was the chance to immediately step into the lineup and play. But Leipold said there’s still room for development for the junior-college transfers, particularly in the weight room and playing experience. Like UB’s other young receivers, they’ll get on-the-job training as the season progresses.

Porter said the move to FBS has been a smooth transition, with the help of UB’s coaches. But he’s noticed the change on the field.

“Coming from junior college to FBS is a different level, because of the guys you’re playing against, as far as their sizes and their capabilities,” said Porter, who had 19 catches for 228 yards and three touchdowns in 2018 at Highland. “It’s like starting at square one again. It made me work harder.”

Multiple receivers caught passes during UB’s scrimmage Friday, and in the first 2 1/2 weeks of practice, Todd has seen improvements in the wide receivers’ blocking assignments. Porter has also seen improvements in the wide receivers, especially against an experienced secondary that includes returning defensive backs Aapri Washington and Joey Banks.

“We’ve come a long way, just from the small things that make a big difference,” Porter said. “The alignments or knowing the different signals or knowing the different tempos.”

But Leipold acknowledges the reality that faces the wide receivers.

“We’re going to need a mixture of guys,” Leipold said. “We’re going to play a lot of wide receivers this year. That’s just the way I see it playing out.”

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