BUFFALO, NY - The 2011 crop of linebackers was predicted by many to lead the team's defense, and lead they did, with three of the team's top four tacklers coming from the linebacking corps. While many of the household names excelled under the high expectations, the Bulls also received breakout seasons from previously unproven players. Khalil Mack and Lee Skinner were the key cogs in the defensive backfield, and both return in 2012 with similarly high hopes.
Mack comes into his junior year with his name already etched into numerous single-season and career program records. Last season, the Fort Pierce, FL native had 65 tackles, with 20.5 tackles for loss (second most in a single season in program history). He also forced a Division I-A record five forced fumbles and 5.5 sacks. Now one of the elder statesmen in the group, Khalil is aiming to become a leader and a more well-rounded player.
"I'm trying to be a leader on and off the field," Mack said. "My main thing is to try and learn my role and what I can do to help my teammates and my team. I've been working on my pass coverage skills and working on my footwork with the defensive backs."
Emerging as the next great linebacker on the team, sophomore Lee Skinner earned a chance to make an impact in the season opener against Pittsburgh and did just that, wowing the coaching staff from the very first defensive series. The Dayton, OH native made a team-high nine tackles against the Panthers and made it known that he deserved to be on the field. He finished second on the team with 80 total tackles (five for loss), and had a recovered fumble and two pass breakups.
Though he is one of the younger starters on defense, Lee hopes to use last season's experience to play with more of a comfort level and lead by example.
"Last year I was just out there to play and I didn't know what else to expect," Skinner said. "But this year I'm becoming a little bit more comfortable and I'm going to try and come back out with everyone else in this unit and become better."
Joining the pair in the defensive backfield will be a group that has a depth of battle-tested talent that gives the coaching staff plenty of flexibility.
Senior Jaleel Verser is a rangy 6-foot-6-inch defender who recorded 49 tackles (six for loss) and four hits on the quarterback. Fellow seniors Scott Pettigrew (23 solo tackles) and Dalonte Wallace (12 tackles) will also be rotated in and both hope to end their careers at UB on a winning note.
Guiding the linebackers this season will be new defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, who comes to Buffalo with 35 years of coaching experience in big-time football programs such as LSU, Colorado and Illinois.
So far in spring practice, Mack has learned an important lesson from his new coach.
"That I'm not as good as I think I am," Mack said with a smile. "He's always going to stay on me about that and he's trying to make me a better whole linebacker, not just a pass rusher but on the outside, making plays in coverage"
Skinner is also impressed with Tepper's drive and his track record of success.
"Coach Tepper has come in and brought a lot of knowledge and his expertise has given us a really good foundation," Skinner said. "We've been able to work well with him and he's fit real well with his personality and energy."