Bullish on 2013: Tackling UB’s O and D
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • August 27, 2013 @ 7:50am
The intimidating Horseshoe and No. 2 Ohio State immediately await the University at Buffalo Bulls on Saturday (Noon, ESPN2), but the broader brush paints a Mid-American Conference team on the rise.
Returning stars like Khalil Mack, Branden Oliver, Alex Neutz, Colby Way and Najja Johnson—as well as an energetic coach armed with a new contract—UB seems poised to reach its first bowl game since 2008’s International Bowl loss to Connecticut.
Welcome to Part I of a five-part Buffalo.com series previewing this year’s UB Bulls football team. If you haven’t followed the detailed on-site reports and columns of The Buffalo News’ Bob DiCesare, Rodney McKissic and Mike Harrington, now’s a good time to catch up.
While you’re at it, take a gander at this Trending Buffalo preview featuring commentary from longtime Bulls media gurus Scott Wilson, Paul Peck and Brad Riter.
The Buffalo.com content schedule becomes more specific as the week progresses, so here’s the breakdown of what to expect:
So you have a little foreknowledge before the Bulls’ home opener at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 14 at UB Stadium, here’s a primer on Buffalo’s offensive strengths and weaknesses.
What’s in the past: UB finished 10th in the MAC in total offense in 2012 (376 yards per game) and tied for 11th in points per game (21.3). Obvious statement: these numbers must improve, but there are already clear signs that they will. The only departures that seriously hurt the UB Bulls are on the offensive line, as Graham Whinery and Gokhan Ozkan have graduated.
Three reasons to be excited:
**Joe Licata’s development: Perhaps the most encouraging point about Licata, a graduate of nearby Williamsville South High School, is that he won’t be forced to play beyond his limitations.
Sure, he’s a rather immobile gunslinger, but his primary tasks are to hum the ball downfield to Alex Neutz or hand-off to Branden Oliver, and those two fall comfortable within Licata’s repertoire.
Remember, the ex-Billie went 3-1 with five TDs and only two picks after wresting the starting QB job from Alex Zordich for the final four games of 2012. This year, the 6’2 passer comfortably won the QB competition after spring ball and should have a long leash.
**Running back depth: Having been around the UB program for a while, it’s clear that Amherst is a destination for running backs for several reasons. Part of it is the recruiting, mentoring and coaching ability of RBs coach Matt Simon—who helped mold the career of former NFL star Jamal Lewis—and part is the opportunity to play under an offensive-line guru like Jeff Quinn.
Options are abundant in the backfield in 2013, boasting perhaps the greatest depth the program has ever boasted. Senior Branden Oliver—who’s within shouting distance of UB’s career-rushing record held by James Starks—is the unquestioned starter, but Devin Campbell, Anthone Taylor, Brandon Murie and James Potts are all gifted enough to excel in a larger role if necessary.
**Offensive line continuity: An offensive line guru, Quinn has groomed 12 NFL OLs during his years in the college ranks, but none have emerged from the UB program during his tenure. That could change this year.
Looking back at Quinn’s 2010 recruiting class, two of the names that jump out are red-shirt junior Andre Davis (Maryvale) and senior Jasen Carlson (Southwestern), both football-basketball hybrids from Western New York high schools.
Snagging Dillon Guy and Gabriel Barbe from north of the border has paid dividends, while outspoken center Trevor Sales—a transfer from Delaware State last year—has bolstered the unit’s communication and unity. The running back contingent referenced above deserves some credit, but it’s this blocking unit that paves the way.
Three reasons for concern:
**Injuries: You’re saying, “Yeah, duh. Injuries impact every team.” Well, in most cases, you’re right, but the Bulls have fallen victim to extremely untimely injuries over the past three years.
Gifted left tackle and team leader Matt Ostrowski went down three games into the 2010 season with a broken leg. Terrell Jackson’s serious neck injury crushed the Bulls’ special teams and wide receiver Alex Neutz’s wrist injury stuck a knife in the Bulls’ receiving corps in October 2011.
Oliver’s MCL tear last season on Sept. 21 against Kent State left UB without his big-play ability for almost nine whole games, even if Campbell and Murie filled in admirably. Fred Lee, a valuable possession receiver to complement Alex Neutz, was out of the lineup for six games, leading to a revolving door of players trying to take pressure off the outstanding Grand Island product.
Injuries are absolutely not a valid excuse—there’s a reason that programs recruit for depth and roster over 100 players. Still, luck is a major component in football—heck, all major sports—and the Bulls have been ridden with injuries to skill players year after year at inopportune times. If Quinn’s squad can stay reasonably healthy in 2013—especially Oliver, Neutz and Licata—eight wins and a MAC title doesn’t sound unreasonable.
**The second receiver: Oof. This has been a problem area for Quinn, and Lee’s injury problems haven’t helped. If No. 18 can be the 2013 version of Brett Hamlin to Neutz’s Naaman, a steady, consistent presence that opponents respect, then Licata’s life will be significantly easier.
The answer isn’t Sweet Home HS product Jordan Johnson, unfortunately, a special athlete whose August elbow surgery will shelve him for the season.
**Find the next Jesse Rack: The former UB tight end was used frequently by Turner Gill, catching 51 balls in two years as an upperclassman. In the three years since his graduation, the high in catches for UB tight ends has been five, five and 17, respectively. Jimmy Gordon, who hauled in the 17 last year, couldn’t be considered a major part of the passing game, as his catches were quite spread out throughout the season—he had five games with one catch and three contests with two.
Even though Gordon returns, there’s more excitement surrounding red-shirt freshman Mason Schreck—a 6’5, 229-pound ex-quarterback from Medina. There have been idle promises from the coaching staff about using the tight end more—and more effectively—and we saw that at times in 2012. Will Joe Licata trust a tight end as a safety blanket and in the red zone, or will he check down more to his running backs?
Previewing the UB Bulls’ 2013 defense:
What’s in the past: Taking away the 45-3 thumping at the hands of Northern Illinois last year, UB’s other seven conference games were decided by an average margin of 8.6 points—meaning that the Bulls engaged in plenty of down-to-the-wire conference tilts. The big reason?
The Bulls’ defense. UB finished second in the MAC in total defense, sixth in scoring defense (28.5 points allowed per game is pretty marginal), tied for third in total sacks, tied for fourth in interceptions and was the conference’s third stiffest defense on third downs.
Steven Means’ move to the NFL and the graduations of Wyatt Cahill, Willie Moseley, Isaac Baugh, Scott Pettigrew and Imani Chatman don’t hurt as much as the numbers may indicate, as Buffalo’s defense is quite deep.
Three reasons to be excited:
**Khalil Mack: You’ll hear A LOT more about UB’s No. 46 in the rest of this preview series, so I’ll heighten the suspense a little further. Just know this: Mack could very well be the best player in the history of Buffalo’s program—both in terms of college production and NFL potential.
**Depth: If you’re looking for possible breakout players—and I’m talking about guys with enough talent where all that’s required is confidence, consistence in practice and an opportunity—the list is quite long. Without factoring in the starters (see bottom for who we think the regulars will be by mid-season), here are depth players we’re excited about: Brandon Berry (DB), Okezie Alozie (DB), Kendall Patterson (DL), Tedroy Lynch (DE), Houston Glass (DB) and Marqus Baker (DB).
In other words, the future is very bright in the secondary, as several players will be chomping at the bit to see action in nickel or dime packages.
**Supporting foursome: Make no mistake: opponents will key on Mack, double and triple-teaming him on the edge—just like Tennessee did two years ago.
That leaves underrated Colby Way, top-flight cornerback Najja Johnson, and the eccentric linebacker pairing of Lee Skinner and Jake Stockman and as four starters with the ability to turn this unit from above-average to elite.
Let’s touch on the two seniors first: Way has bulked up to 293 pounds—almost 20 pounds above his 2012 listing—and his motor allows him to attack relentlessly. He’s almost as disruptive as Mack, and that’s high praise.
Johnson is the next in a long line of UB’s tradition of talented defensive backs—you know, Davonte Shannon, Mike Newton, Josh Thomas, Domonic Cook and so on—and a productive senior season could vault him into the late rounds of the NFL Draft.
Skinner—just a junior, even though it feels like he’s been around forever—is already the vocal leader of the defense, exactly what you want from your middle linebacker.
Scott Pettigrew’s slow return from a serious injury left the door open for Stockman, who proved to be a tackle machine (fifth on the team despite starting only five games) in limited duty. With Stockman at 237 pounds and Skinner at 233, the middle linebacker pairing is one of the conference’s biggest.
Three reasons to be concerned:
**Linebacker depth: While we’ve just touted Skinner and Stockman, there are a lot of unproven linebackers behind them.
How will junior college transfer Blake Bean adjust to a higher level of competition? Will he eventually force a time-share with Stockman? Who handles the role that Moseley took by the horns last season? Can Adam Redden finally realize his potential as a Josh Copeland-type linebacker-safety hybrid? How much will we learn about Cincinnati transfer Ryan Paxson? Khari Brown’s transfer to Howard University hurts in this category.
**The offense: What? The offense is a potential weakness for the defense? Let me explain: UB’s offense hasn’t finished better than ninth in the MAC in time of possession since the 2008 bowl season (they finished third then). Unable to sustain drives, the offense’s inability to stay on the field has worn down talented UB defenses—as it’s no simple task to play 32 minutes of D game after game.
I don’t care how good Khalil Mack and Colby Way are—if they’re on the field too much, they’re going to wear down.
**Run defense: Not a major worry—as UB’s defense finished a respectable fifth in the MAC last year—but Buffalo’s defense comprises better pass rushers than run defenders, especially with the departure of Means and Cahill. How sturdy will new starters Kristjan Sokoli (300 pounds) and Beau Bachtelle (273 pounds) be against the run? Sokoli is the first 300-pound nose guard the Bulls have started since I began covering the team, for what that’s worth.
(Header photo and internal photos courtesy of Don Nieman, while the bottom two photos are courtesy of UB Bull Run.)