The differences in the University at Buffalo football team this year are obvious.
The turnover in personnel has depleted some position groups. The offense lost six starters, including quarterback and 2018 MAC offensive player of the year Tyree Jackson and All-MAC first-team wide receiver Anthony Johnson. The defense graduated eight starters, including All-MAC first-team linebacker Khalil Hodge and three starters in the secondary.
Injuries during the preseason have thinned a young group of wide receivers, and the Bulls will turn to quarterback Matt Myers, a redshirt freshman who played in one game last season and has yet to throw a pass at the college level.
UB opens the season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Robert Morris, an FCS program located in Pittsburgh. The most significant challenge for the Bulls is to retool, and, in some spots, overhaul after a historic 2018 season, in which they went 10-4, won the Mid-American Conference East Division and played for their first MAC title since 2008.
There’s also plenty of optimism within the Bulls, who embrace the differences between this year and last year while understanding the challenges ahead.
The Bulls will have to handle the growing pains that come after losing 26 players, either to graduation, transfers or the NFL, and bringing along younger players who will take on the roles vacated by Hodge, Johnson, Jackson and center James O’Hagan, seniors in 2018 who helped lead the Bulls to the best season in program history.
“There’s some justification for that,” UB coach Lance Leipold said. “As expectations continue to grow and when you look, statistically, at what has left the program, that’s a fair statement at this point. But as I’ve said before, maintaining success is by keeping young men motivated and challenged to get better, each and every day. That’s our responsibility, and I think this group is really receptive to that.
“It’s going to be a challenging month, with the (nonconference) schedule and as we head into the season, but that’s what makes the Mid-American Conference what it is, the competitiveness within and the balance within. And we’re embracing that.”
Eddie Wilson, a sophomore defensive tackle, breaks it down in simpler terms.
“We can’t let the doubters get to us,” Wilson said. “They’re saying ‘Oh, Tyree Jackson’s not here,’ and, they’re right. He’s not here, but it’s our time now. It’s our team now. We have to write our own story.
“We’re practicing hard every day, and I see everyone putting in the extra work to do this.”
The youth of the team buoys the returning players, including running back Kevin Marks and offensive lineman Tomas Jack-Kurdyla.
Marks, a redshirt sophomore who ran for 845 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018, aims to teach his younger teammates the standards his former teammates set. They include being detail oriented, focused, paying attention and using practice time for mental reps.
Marks said he sees a big difference from last year to this year in the attitude his younger teammates have brought to preseason practices. But the biggest challenge, he explained, is gaining their full commitment.
“We have a lot of new faces, and we have to get them on board and be committed to what we do, that standard to get better each day,” Marks said. “There’s competition at each position group, and you have to bring it, each week.”
Jack-Kurdyla, a senior, finds that attitude refreshing in UB’s freshmen and sophomores.
“To see the young guys come in and produce and having the opportunity to produce, with guys departing in the wintertime, those guys want to step up and make plays,” Jack-Kurdyla said. “No one wants to fall, and let off from last year. We won 10 games, but we don’t want to feel that, because we’re young, we’re not expected to do the same.”
Wilson said the biggest difference in the Bulls is from a tactical standpoint. The defense, he said, will have a more significant role. UB’s defensive line returns four players who started a combined 14 games last season: tackles DeShondrick Foxworth (four starts), Wilson (three starts) and Chibueze Onwuka (five starts before a season-ending high ankle sprain) and defensive end Taylor Riggins (two starts).
While UB returns linebackers Matt Otwinowski, Kadofi Wright and James Patterson, it lost starting cornerbacks Cam Lewis and Tatum Slack and safety Brandon Williams to graduation. Safeties Tyrone Hill and Joey Banks and defensive backs Aapri Washington, Devon Russell and Roy Baker are returning experienced players.
“Last year, you saw the offense carry the team,” said Wilson, who started at defensive tackle in UB’s final three games in 2018. “But this year, it’s pretty much the defense. We’re physical, we’re faster and we probably have one of the best units in the MAC, and I’m really excited for the defense. I know the offense is going to come out and ball, but I’m excited for the defense.”
Jack-Kurdyla said another challenge is younger players need to understand the fundamentals of preparation, including making sure others know their assignments and that players who earn starting positions are fully committed to their roles.
It’s up to the upperclassmen to champion the value of accountability, especially in a program that opens the season with so much uncertainty.
“It’s a lot when you first play,” Jack-Kurdyla said. “Bullets are flying, people are running, people are hitting. You have to keep your composure. With experience, you get composure, and with the offensive linemen having the experience of playing, you know how to handle situations.
“We’re making sure the young guys know how to handle those situations.”