HEAD COACH: Lance Leipold (First Year)
MAC PRESEASON POLL: Fifth, MAC East
► How will the Bulls adjust to a new head coach and systems?
► With plenty of weapons returning, can the offense develop the consistency needed for UB to compete for a MAC East title?
► Can a defense ranked ninth (MAC) in scoring improve enough to give the Bulls a few more wins.
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► With weapons returning at numerous “skill” positions, the Bulls seem primed to match or improve last year’s marks on offense. Buffalo (32.3 ppg) was third among MAC teams in scoring, and that included some very productive company. Only Toledo and Western Michigan averaged more. The Bulls were also third in total offense (438.2 ypg), trailing Toledo and Northern Illinois.
► The Bulls have a relatively balanced offense. Approximately 54 percent of the plays were runs, and UB finished third in rushing offense (178.6 ypg). The passing game (just over 45%) produced 259.5 ypg. That was fifth among MAC teams.
► Buffalo has become a pretty good place for running backs (e.g. James Starks, Brandon Oliver). The latest to enjoy success is Anthone Taylor, who netted 1,403 yards on 282 attempts in 2014. That’s a nice even 5.0 ypc and 127.5 ypg for the Taylor, who earned All-MAC Second Team honors.
► “He had three 200-plus-yard games last year. That’s proven production,” said coach Leipold, who values the run game – maybe especially in Buffalo. “There’s going to be a time of the year you have to run the football. (But) no matter where you are at, if you want to be a championship program, you’re going to have to run the football sometime, and he gives us a good starting option.”
Leipold also likes what he sees behind Taylor. “I look at what we have … and I feel that it is a position of excellent depth. … I’ve been extremely pleased with this incoming group.”
► There are a few more questions along the front line this year. Three veterans departed, including All-MAC Second Teamer Jake Silas and four-year starter Andre Davis. The dust is still settling on who will be where for opening day. Robert Blodgett and John Kling, both seniors, will probably anchor the group.
► With senior Joe Licata back at quarterback, UB has a capable passer who is also battle-tested (e.g. three years starting experience). Leibold lauded Licata for “his maturity, his leadership (and) how he carries himself. “
Licata completed 64.9 percent of his passes last year, providing 2,647 yards and 29 TDs with 11 interceptions. He ranked second in passer rating.
► The targets are there, too. Among them is Ron Willoughby (All-MAC Third Team). Willoughby (50 ctches, 771 yards, 9 TDs) is a big play threat who could bloom in the Bulls offense this year.
Leipold was certainly impressed with the tape he saw on the 6-4 senior. “You really watched him make play after play and come up big for this team,” said the Bulls new head coach. “He has an uncanny way of (making plays).”
Senior Marcus McGill and sophomore Jacob Martinez could also make key contributions. They combined for 50 receptions in 2014. Senior tight end Matt Weiser is back and Collin Lisa transferred in from UAB.
► Leipold indicated that installing systems has been a work in progress. Overall, “It’s coming together very well.”
► Some fans “may not notice a huge difference from last year,” Leipold said of the Bulls offense. Flexibility, however, is a key. “I think you’re going to see a lot of married plays -- you have run-pass options out of different plays. It’s really two plays in one. It’s up to your quarterback to put you in the best situation.”
► The biggest challenges for UB this season may be on defense. The 2014 Bulls ranked ninth in scoring defense (31.5 ppg) and sixth in total defense (397.7 ypg). The Bulls were seventh against the run (175.2 ypg) and fourth in defending against the pass (222.5 ypg).
► Only three starters return. Among the biggest losses were linebackers Jake Strockman and Lee Skinner. The latter paced all UB defenders with 96 stops, including 6.5 TFL and 3.5 sacks. Safety Adam Redden was second with 78 tackles and an amazing 14.5 TFL (6.5 sacks). He is also gone.
► Junior Jarrett Franklin (49 tackles, 5.0 TFL) and senior Okenzie Alozie (safety last year) will likely anchor the linebacking level. Marquis Baker and Boise Ross figure at the corners, although there could be some scrambling for jobs in the secondary overall.
► With systems being installed and positional battles underway, Leipold adknowledged the defense is still a “work in progress.” Still, he said recently, “I think it’s coming together very well,” Leipold said, adding, “I think it’s coming together very well.”
► It remains to be seen how much the Bulls might miss placekicker Patrick Clarke. He finished his career ranked second in field goals for the UB program. However, he was just 6 of 14 on FGs last season, with a long of 40. Redshirt freshman Adam Mitcheson steps into that role, while Tyler Grassman returns for a fourth season of punting. Devin Campbell, a versatile offensive weapon, earned Second Team All-MAC honors as a kick returner.
Leipold believes that due to matchups or conditions, both the offense and defense will likely have days on which they shine. “If we give up 48, we better find a way to score 49,” he said. “If we score three, we better find a way to hold (the opposition) to two or zero. That’s just the way we approach it – whatever it is going to take.”
► After dropping a key 36-35 decision to eventual MAC East winner Bowling Green on the road last year, Buffalo was upset by Eastern Michigan, 37-27, the following week. That led to the firing of head coach Jeff Quinn. The Bulls lost two more before exploding for a total of 97 points in season-ending wins over Akron and UMass.
► A trip to Penn State highlights Buffalo’s September non-conference schedule. The Bulls begin MAC play Oct. 3 when they host Bowling Green in what will be a crucial MAC East matchup. Another potentially big matchup could be the season finale Nov. 28 at UMass. Both Bowling Green and UMass figure to be huge tests for the Buffalo defense.
► Northern Illinois (home) and Central Michigan (away) provide cross divisional opposition.