Another new face at starting quarterback, a running back who knocked James Starks out of the school record books and an improving defense are the main storylines for the 2012 University at Buffalo Bulls.
Head Coach Jeff Quinn enters his third season in charge of the program and while there were some signs of progress last season, Quinn’s record to this point is just 5-19 overall, 3-13 in the Mid American Conference. Quinn’s teams have yet to win a road game, going 0-13 away from UB Stadium the last two years.
Lack of continuity at quarterback is a big reason why the Bulls have had their struggles in recent years. Since Drew Willy graduated following a MAC Championship in 2008, UB hasn’t had the same starter at that critical position in back to back seasons.
In fact, when junior Alex Zordich takes the field at Georgia on Saturday, he will be the fifth different opening game starting qb in as many seasons.
Zordich beat out Williamsville South product Joe Licata for the top job and does have some experience in that spot. The 6-3, 222 pounder started four games in 2010 before being injured. He backed up Chazz Anderson last season and has just 1 touchdown pass to his credit to go along with 6 interceptions. Quinn likes his decision making and leadership skills and feels he gives the Bulls their best chance at this point.
Zordich should benefit greatly from the presence of Branden Oliver right behind him. The running back had an eye popping sophomore season taking the place of current Green Bay Packer James Starks in the UB record book for most rushing yards in a single season. Oliver rolled up 1,395 yards while also recording 13 touchdowns. At 5-8, 200 pounds, Oliver is a combination of power and explosiveness. Watching him run is worth the price of admission. The junior made the pre-season watch lists for the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Doak Walker awards.
Opponents will likely stack the box in an effort to keep Oliver in check so it will fall on Zordich and the passing offense to make teams pay. How they will fare is one of the unknowns when you couple Zordich’s relative inexperience with the heavy graduation losses at wide receiver.
Marcus Rivers, Terrell Jackson and Ed Young are all gone so other players will have to step up. The top receiver without question is Alex Neutz. The former Grand Island Viking exhibited tremendous hands and big play ability as a sophomore last season, averaging just under 15 yards a catch. Fred Lee and Devon Hughes are next up on the depth chart but combined for just 38 catches last season.
Alex Dennison and Jimmy Gordon are the leading returnees at tight end but both recorded only 5 catches in 2011.
The Bulls will lean on the running game because of Oliver’s ability and an experienced offensive line which made tremendous strides in run blocking last season. 4 of the 5 starters are back and the lone new starter, center Trevor Sales, was probably the best center on the team last season but had to sit out after transferring from Delaware State.
Defensively, Buffalo will have to improve in a number of areas and Quinn is hoping new Defensive Coordinator Lou Tepper will make a big difference. The former Head Coach at Illinois inherits a unit that gave up an average of 29 points a game (83rd in the 120 team FBS), and 181 rushing yards a game(86th). The Bulls allowed teams to convert on 3rd down 41% of the time and their 13 takeaways were the 6th lowest total in the FBS.
There are some good players though with the best of the bunch being junior linebacker Khalil Mack. A first team ALL MAC honoree last season, Mack is a disruptive force who must be accounted for by opposing offenses on every play. Mack finished in the top ten nationally in both tackles for loss and forced fumbles last season. He added 5.5 sacks.
Add in defensive end Steven Means(Grover Cleveland H.S.) who enters the season 10th in career sacks at UB and fellow end Colby Way who had a breakthrough 2011 campaign and the Bulls have some strong components in the front seven.
The secondary, completely turned over due to graduation after the 2010 season got some valuable playing experience and is led by junior cornerback Najja Johnson who led the MAC in pass break ups in 2011.
Special teams is a mixed bag on paper. Buffalo has upgraded at place kicker with sophomore Patrick Clarke who took over the job midway through last season and was a perfect 6-6 on field goals(including 3 from 40 plus yards) and 10-10 on extra points(nothing to sneeze at when you remember what happened with Peter Fardon in the Northern Illinois game).
True Freshman Tyler Grassman will handle the punting job.
The kick return game should be in good hands with Brandon Murie. The junior from Iroquois High School averaged 28 yards a return last season and had a 93 yarder against Akron.
There are no proven punt returners on the roster but it still has to be better than last year when Quinn literally worried about every return since he couldn’t find players who could at the very least catch the ball, let alone put together a return. Sophomore Cordero Dixon and Freshman Devin Campbell are the returners to start the season.
As far as the schedule, the non conference portion isn’t pretty so the Bulls best make some serious headway in MAC play. Buffalo opens at 6th ranked Georgia on Saturday.
They’ll be favored to beat Morgan State in the home opener on September 8th but will be underdogs when playing at Connecticut on September 29th and when Pittsburgh comes to Amherst on October 20th. The Bulls have lost their last 15 games against Big East competition which means a 1-3 non conference record is extremely possible.
Buffalo was picked to finish 5th in the MAC East in the pre-season poll. They have a winnable game to open MAC play, hosting Kent State on September 19th. But UB travels to Ohio(pre-season pick to win the East) and Northern Illinois(defending West champ) in their first 2 conference road tilts. Don’t forget the stat from earlier, UB hasn’t won a road game since the 2009 season.