BUFFALO, NY - As the University at Buffalo football program prepares for spring practices to start on March 20 one thought permeates from the coaching staff to the players: this is our time.
Armed with 17 returning starters, an unprecedented amount of underclassmen who have already earned both league-wide and national honors and a veteran, impressive coaching staff led by third-year head coach Jeff Quinn, the Bulls are ready to start making some noise in 2012, starting with spring drills.
While Buffalo didn't show the kind of win-loss results that it had hoped for in 2011, there were enough positive signs that indicate the breakthrough the coaches and players are feeling is imminent.
The reason for the optimism begins with a talented, battle-hardened core of rising underclassmen who have already seen significant success. Start with first-team All-MAC honorees Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver who highlight each side of the ball and joined Davonte Shannon as the only other Bull to earn first-team honors as sophomores.
The Bulls, who averaged over 30 points per game at home last season, lose only two offensive starters and just three from a defense that returns nine of its top 12 tacklers. Quinn has put together an impressive staff that has been part of teams that have won a pair of Super Bowl titles, eight national championships and 26 conference crowns. The staff, which added defensive coordinator Lou Tepper (former head coach Illinois, Edinboro and Indiana, PA) and defensive backfield coach Maurice Linguist this winter, has been a part of 75 bowl games and has coached in eight national championship games.
Here's a look position-by-position at the battles that will occur this spring as the Bulls prepare to open the 2012 season at Georgia on Sept. 1.
One of Buffalo's key offensive losses is quarterback Chazz Anderson, who started all 12 games for the Bulls after transferring in from Cincinnati in 2011. That doesn't mean Buffalo is starting from scratch in 2012.
The Bulls will return two quarterbacks – senior Jerry Davis and junior Alex Zordich – who have significant starting experience and two other highly-touted redshirt freshmen in Joe Licata and Tony Daniel.
Davis started eight games in 2010, throwing 16 touchdown passes, and is an accomplished passer. In 2010 he threw for over 200 yards on five occasions and also ran for 236 yards.
Zordich is a strong runner who continues to improve his throwing skills and is blessed with great size, strength and intangibles. He started four games in 2010 and served as the backup to Anderson last season.
Both Licata and Daniel were highly-recruited quarterbacks coming out of high school and have the benefit of learning the offense last fall. Licata is one of the most decorated quarterbacks to ever come out of WNY, winning the Connolly Cup emblematic of the area's best player and setting the WNY record for touchdown passes with 87. Daniel is a tall, rangy athlete that ESPN Recruiting had just outside of the top 100 quarterback prospects of 2011.
Quinn comments: "While we will miss the senior leadership that Chazz brought to our football team last year, I really believe this is our most talented group of quarterbacks since I've been in Buffalo. We have four players who we all feel can help us to win football games, each with their own unique talents. As is always the case with this position, the quarterback that makes the best decisions, protects the football and proves to be the most consistent will earn the starting nod. Regardless of who that is, I think this is the most talented supporting cast we have had since I've been in Buffalo."
Simply put, the Bulls have found their bellcow ballcarrier in Miami, FL native Branden Oliver, who had one of the most spectacular seasons in UB football history last fall. Oliver's super sophomore campaign has already earned him some pre-season hype as he was selected by the Touchdown Club of Columbus as one of six Mid-American Conference "Players to Watch" in 2012.
He was certainly worth the price of admission last fall. Oliver started the season fast, rushing for over 100 yards for the first time in the season opener at Pittsburgh, and rarely slowed down en route to a school record for single-season rushing attempts (306), yards (1,395), 100-yard rushing games (8) and all-purpose yards (1,760).
More impressive was the fact that most of the records to fall were held by current Green Bay Packer standout, and Super Bowl champion, James Starks and most ridiculous of all is the fact that Oliver had more rushing attempts (306) in 2011 than he had total rushing yards (298) in his freshman campaign.
The junior-to-be is rare combination of strength, speed and balance at a chiseled 5-8, 200 pounds. His 235 rushing yards against Akron was the second-most in school history, and the most in Buffalo's Division I era. In all, he scored 13 touchdowns on the season, averaged an impressive 4.6 yards per carry and had four touchdown jaunts of over 20 yards, including a 68-yarder at Eastern Michigan.
Sophomore Anthone Taylor, who saw action in seven games as a true freshman and junior Brandon Murie, who has breakaway speed, are expected to get the bulk of reps behind Oliver. Sophomore James Potts is with the program but is being held out of spring drills for violation of team rules.
The Bulls made good use of the fullback position last season and expect Rashad Jean and Boomer Brock to battle for the starting position starting this spring. Jean saw regular action late last season.
Quinn comments: "There is no doubt that we have one of the nation's premier running backs in Branden Oliver. He has a tremendous impact on our team not only because of his talent on the field but because of the way he displays his love of the game each and every day both on and off the field. Our job now is to develop a backup tailback that creates very little drop-off in terms of productivity and being assignment sound."
The Bulls were hardest hit by graduation at this position as Marcus Rivers, Terrell Jackson and Ed Young have all finished their eligibility, although Jackson was lost for most of the back half of the 2011 season with injury.
In junior Alex Neutz Buffalo has one of the emerging big play receivers in the Mid-American Conference. As a sophomore the long, rangy Grand Island, NY native was among the big-play leaders in the MAC, averaging 14.9 yards per catch and going over 100 yards receiving in three games. Neutz finished the season with 43 receptions for 641 yards and four touchdowns in just nine games, ranking 56th in the nation in yards receiving per game (71.22 ypg).
Junior Fred Lee saw extended work late in the season and finished the year with 20 receptions and a pair of touchdowns. Sophomore Devon Hughes saw the majority of his action in the slot and finished with 18 receptions for 123 yards and a score.
Quinn comments: "I really like the progress of our young players at this position and we will enter 2012 with no seniors at the wide receiver position. Alex Neutz got injured last year right at the point where he was becoming a dominant force and we expect him to pick up where he left off. We will need continued improvement from our young players and I expect that we will develop excellent depth as we move towards the opener at Georgia."
This is one of the Bulls' deepest and most promising positions as Buffalo returns four underclassmen with a nice mix of skill sets to provide a variety of options to UB's diverse offense.
Junior Jake Reeder will be fully recovered from a knee injury that limited him greatly last year. At 6-5, 250 pounds Reeder is a fierce run blocker who can also get out in space. Junior Jimmy Gordon is a physical blocker and special teams dynamo who plays with an edge.
Yet another junior, Alex Dennison, is the fastest of the group, as a converted quarterback, and should only improve in his second full season at the position. His one reception last year was a 57-yard touchdown catch. The last member of the quartet is athletic redshirt freshman Matt Weiser who has excellent hands and speed while continuing to add weight to a sturdy frame.
Quinn comments: "I really like what our tight ends will bring us this fall. They are athletic, competitive and tough and we will use them in a variety of ways and will also count on them heavily in special teams. This is a highly-competitive group who will push each other and our team to greater heights."
No area of the Buffalo football team was more improved than the offensive line in 2011, particularly compared to Quinn's first season, which no doubt pleased the long-time offensive line coach greatly.
What's more encouraging is the fact that Buffalo's strong offensive performance last year – including over 360 yards of total offense per game and a record-breaking season by tailback Branden Oliver – is the fact that the Bulls return all but one offensive line starter.
The Bulls are young across the offense, but no seniors will be counted on more than the versatile Graham Whinery and tackle Gokhan Ozkan. Whinery, a Texas native, may well shift back to guard – where he started as a sophomore – after starting all 12 games at center last year. Whinery is the quiet leader of a rapidly improving group. Ozkan, meanwhile, is showing improvement in his leadership skills, and started all 12 games at right tackle last year. A physical specimen at 6-7, 325, Ozkan is fully developing into the dominating tackle the coaching staff has envisioned.
Junior Jasen Carlson has also spent time playing both center and guard in his career and will also be counted on greatly. A rising star at guard is WNY native Andre Davis who excelled as a redshirt freshman, starting all 12 games and at times serving as an overpowering force.
Yet another young guard with a bright future is sophomore Dillon Guy, who got the starting nod on several occasions last year. Guy, like Davis, is big, strong and has a mean streak. The other player in the interior who will push to start is transfer Trevor Sales. Sales, who spent a season playing for offensive line coach Adam Shorter at Delaware State, sat out last season and is expected to challenge for the starting center position and is a powerpack at 6-1, 314 pounds.
The Bulls lost left tackle Matt Ostrowski to graduation, but have experience and talent ready to step in. Junior tackle Pat Wilson missed last season with an injury, but previously had started at left tackle as a redshirt freshman and is one of the Bulls most athletic big men. Sophomores Gabriel Barbe, Jake Silas and Anthony Bartholomew are all big bodies that are ready to contribute on a more regular basis.
Quinn comments: "It all starts up front in a successful offense. I am very excited about the progress we made on the offensive line last year and anticipate even more growth and productivity from this group this fall. We have some great senior leadership in Graham and "G.O." and they will play a key role in continuing to bring along some very talented young lineman. Our offense will have the opportunity to be highly productive because of the efforts of our offensive line."
The Bulls will return two highly productive starters in its multiple three- and four-down fronts and will need to replace graduated nose guard Richie Smith.
Buffalo native Steven Means has had an extremely productive career and looks to cap it with an All-MAC senior season. A big-play specialist, Means had 33 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, blocked two kicks and returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown versus Bowling Green. Means already ranks 10th all-time with 12 career sacks.
Junior Colby Way had a breakout season last fall and plays with an all-out motor that allowed him to lead all UB defensive lineman with 49 tackles (including 27 solo stops). Way finished second on the team in both sacks (3) and tackles for loss (7.5) and is just getting better.
While the Bulls will get some reinforcements in fall camp, for spring ball the others vying for playing time at defensive end will be Kristjan Sokoli, who excelled in a backup role, as well as Dalton Barksdale, a sophomore, who suffered through injuries last year. Sokoli had 14 tackles, four of them for losses, in a backup role, while Barksdale can play both inside and out.
At nose tackle the Bulls will count on senior Wyatt Cahill, a JUCO transfer last year, who had 15 tackles and recovered a fumble last year, in a bigger way. Resdhirt freshmen Kendall Patterson and Joe Felicia will look to show the staff they are ready for an increased role this fall.
Quinn comments: "We will be counting on the leadership of Steven and Colby, particularly with a very young group at this position. We will need to find consistent play in the interior and have a variety of options there…ideally we will develop a solid rotation of players that can help us defeat blockers in the run game and pressure the quarterback."
This position shows great promise as Buffalo returns all but one player – last year's leading tackler Fred Branch – and has a pair of returning honorees, including Sports Illustrated All-America Honorable Mention selection Khalil Mack.
Mack, a junior-to-be linebacker, is a game-changer whose play should be recognized on several pre-season awards lists. A first-team All-MAC selection, Mack has been devastating to offenses in his first two seasons, recording 35 tackles for loss, forcing seven fumbles, racking up 21 quarterback hurries and breaking up 12 passes.
His 2011 season was one for the ages, as the Fort Pierce, FL native racked up 65 tackles (38 solos) and finished in the top ten nationally in both tackles for loss (20.5, 3rd in the nation) and forced fumbles (5, 8th in the nation). He added 5.5 quarterback sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. Those efforts earned him a spot on the Touchdown Club of Columbus list of six MAC "Players to Watch" for 2012 and should put him on many other national watch lists.
However, Mack will have plenty of company when it comes to potential playmakers in the Bulls' linebacking corps. Sophomore inside linebacker Lee Skinner earned a spot on Phil Steele Magazine's national All-Freshman team after a stellar first season that saw him rank second on the team with 80 total tackles (38 solos). The Dayton, OH native added five tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups.
Senior inside linebacker Scott Pettigrew has been a productive player throughout his career. He totaled 32 tackles last season and forced a fumble. Other inside backer candidates include sophomores Khari Brown, Jake Stockman and Wonderful Monds, who both saw significant special teams action last season. The staff is excited about what each of them brings.
Lanky senior Jaleel Verser ranked seventh on the team last season in tackles from his outside linebacker position, recording 49 stops, including six tackles for loss (third most on the team). Verser also blocked a kick and added four quarterback hurries. He is a versatile athlete that can both cover and aid against the run. He and Mack can give nightmares to opposing offenses coming off the edge. Seniors Imani Chatman, Dalonte Wallace and Willie Moseley are all special teams standouts who look to finish their careers with a flourish. Along with youngsters, Kendall Roberson, Ryan Paxson (a Cincinnati transfer) and Brandon Tammaro, the Bulls possess tremendous depth at outside linebacker.
Quinn comments: "This group should be the strength of our defense and Coach Tepper will do a tremendous job of putting them in positions to make plays for our team. Khalil should be mentioned among the very best returning defensive players in the nation and his supporting cast has great ability as well. We need to rely on the consistent leadership from this group for us to become a dominating defense. I am very excited about what this linebacking corps can accomplish."
A year ago, the Bulls faced the unenviable task of replacing five seniors in the defensive backfield – three of them (Davonte Shannon, Josh Thomas and Domonic Cook) who were on NFL rosters last year.
Despite the pressure and youthful appearance that graduation void created, overall the Bulls defensive backs came through with flying colors, ranking 36th overall in pass defense in the nation.
The lone senior in the group is safety Isaac Baugh, who played in 11 games and finished with 36 tackles, broke up three passes and recovered a fumble. A physical safety, the Tennessee native will be counted on for leadership in a still youthful group.
Two players that stepped to the fore last season as a sophomore and freshman, respectively, were Najja Johnson and Cortney Lester. Johnson, a former walk-on, was among the nation's best at breaking up passes, recording 16 on the season, tying him for eighth best nationally. The fleet and heady corner added 39 tackles for the year.
Lester made the switch from wide receiver with style and proved to be a physical presence from his corner position. The Florida native was fifth on the team with 54 tackles (including an impressive 34 solo stops), added a sack, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, four pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.
Buffalo looks for the continued development of junior Carlos Lammons, who played in 10 games last season, sophomore Dwellie Striggles, who will be limited in spring practice after surgery, sophomore Keith Takeh and redshirt freshmen Marqus Baker and Matthew Thomas-Quick to build depth into the corner position.
Buffalo will need to replace Josh Copeland's 69 tackles at safety last season, but has a highly experienced player waiting in the wings in junior Okoye Houston, who has seen plenty of playing time his first two years. Houston had 35 tackles and a pair of pass breakups last season. Sophomores Whitney Sherry and Adam Redden will need to step up, as both have an abundance of athletic ability and will be counted on heavily. Junior Derek Brim has made a nice transition from wide receiver and should be a factor as. Redshirt freshman Kyndal Minnifield is also expected to push for playing time.
Quinn comments: "The play of our defensive backs last season was a pleasant surprise. We have now balanced our recruiting classes in this area and have a quality group of young men ready to help us win football games. We need to continue to develop our tackling skills and the ability to create more turnovers will be critical to our chances of winning. I am excited to see the continued growth of our defensive backfield as they are all underclassmen with the exception of Isaac."
The Bulls have two glaring areas to fill at the punter and punt return position, but feel very good about their placekicking and snapper positions.
UB graduated two senior punters – Jacob Schum and Peter Fardon – and will turn to sophomore Patrick Clarke this spring until signee Tyler Grassman arrives in August to compete for the starting job. Clarke had an incredible freshman season as the Bulls' kickoff man and placekicker after taking over the duties in week 10. Clarke hit all 10 of his PATs and connected on 6-of-6 field goals (43, 41, 49, 26, 31 and 27 yards) over the final three weeks of the season.
Longsnapper Tim Krantz is back in 2012 and has shown great consistency. The Bulls will be looking for return men in the kickoff area this spring as the most veteran member of the team is Brandon Murie who had seven returns for 199 yards (28.4 per return), including a 93-yard return versus Akron.
The Bulls struggled mightily in the punt return area after Terrell Jackson went down to injury. Alex Neutz and Devon Hughes will likely get a long look as Quinn looks to cement that area going into fall camp.
The Bulls return the core of their special team groupings that made several big plays last year. Buffalo blocked six kicks on the season and also recovered two fumbles forced by their kickoff coverage team.
Quinn comments: I like the overall group of guys that we have to play special teams, we have a number of versatile athletes that can help us out. Our obvious needs are finding a punter and punt returner but I'm confident that we will fill those positions. Pat Clarke showed us great potential in his freshman season as a kicker. We need to continue to find ways for special teams to make a difference in the outcome of games."