James O’Hagan took on the task of helping Mike Novitsky make a major transition.
As O'Hagan went through preseason practices as the University at Buffalo football team's starting center in 2018, he noticed a younger teammate who was deep in his playbook, focused on his training and trying to absorb everything that came with transitioning into a college offensive lineman.
Novitsky was a tight end at Victor High School, who, a year ago, embraced the idea of moving to a new position. Now, Novitsky will be UB's starting center – and O'Hagan's successor – when the Bulls open the season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Robert Morris at UB Stadium.
“Mike is super-athletic, and he had a lot of good qualities that would prepare him to be a really good center in college,” said O’Hagan, now in training camp with the New York Giants. “And it was important for me to help him because you want to pay it forward at your school. I took him under my wing.”
Novitsky played in just three games last season but will start ahead of Dan Clifford, a graduate transfer who played in 33 games, including 29 starts, in the last three seasons at Wagner College, an FCS program.
“He flat-out came in and won the job,” UB coach Lance Leipold said Tuesday, after UB unveiled its depth chart for its season opener. “He’s taking command of things and right now. He gives us the best chance to win.”
Novitsky is the youngest starter in one of UB’s most experienced position groups. The Bulls’ offensive line will start fifth-year seniors Evin Ksiezarczyk at left tackle and Paul Nosworthy at left guard, senior Tomas Jack-Kurdyla at right guard and redshirt junior Kayode Awosika at right tackle.
“We took the mentality that we have to lead this team,” Novitsky said. “We had the most players returning and the most experience, so we took the mentality that it’s on us. This is our job, this is what we have to do and that we’re going to go as far as we allow ourselves to.”
As Novitsky prepares for his first college start, he aims for precision. Anything less, and Novitsky is not doing his job.
“People realize when I mess up,” Novitsky said. “When I have a bad snap, that’s when people realize what I’m doing. As long as I don’t mess up, I usually go unnoticed, and that’s fine by me. As long as you’re being successful at what you do, it doesn’t matter. ”
When the Bulls recruited Novitsky, they made a long-term projection for him: He would be an offensive lineman, not a tight end.
“It took us about four practices last year to realize that we had a pretty talented young man,” Leipold said.
But UB’s coaches also were thinking about a void they would have to fill after the graduation of O’Hagan, a three-time All-Mid-American Conference selection who started 50 consecutive games in four seasons (2014 to 2018) at UB.
So was O’Hagan.
“James O’Hagan did a great job of taking (Mike) under his wing, and I don’t know if there’s been a better guy that worked at it, watched film and put in the extra time than James O’Hagan,” Leipold said. “So he saw it from the best. As we went through the year, we got him in a couple times in some games last year, and that really eased some of our concerns as to, ‘What are we going to do when James O’Hagan leaves this program?’ We felt really good about Mike and what he’s going to bring.”
Novitsky’s transition wasn’t immediate, though, even though he had an athletic background. He put on weight, going from a 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound true freshman to 280 this season.
He had to learn a position with responsibilities involving more than just snapping the ball to a quarterback.
There’s a certain amount of multitasking that goes into playing at center, including dictating assignments and reading defensive schemes.
“You have a lot more you have to do than the other linemen,” O’Hagan said. “The guard and the tackle, they’re going off what a center does. And how a team runs the ball, that’s put on the center.
“And there’s a lot to take in. The biggest thing, for the younger guys, especially someone like Mike, is that they’re playing against bigger people. At Victor, they don’t see 300-pound nose guards, and that’s the hardest part, playing against people that big and athletic.”
But O’Hagan gave him plenty of advice: Enjoy your time playing college football. Take a positive approach to learning a new position. And most importantly, pay attention to the details of what you’re learning and doing.
“You have to balance so much, because all of it bleeds together,” O’Hagan said. “And you have to embrace it.”