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.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. Summer is about to give way to fall. Pre-season football will thankfully give way to regular season football and we're talking about the struggles of the Bills starting quarterback. I was kidding with that "stop me" reference. I would like you to read the rest of the column.
We know pre-season games don't count but players and coaches alike will tell you they do matter. Which is why we should be concerned with the performance of Ryan Fitzpatrick and the number one offense to this point.
There are no excuses to explain away their ineffectiveness. Its the same offense and the third year for Fitzpatrick in that offense. The same play caller(Chan Gailey) who has a great working relationship with his quarterback. The same receivers are back so lack of chemistry can't be an issue.
The same running backs are out there and would probably have made the offense more productive if they received more carries through the three dress rehearsals.
You can't use injuries as an excuse either. The only starter who has missed time is right tackle Erik Pears although the Bills have limited the game snaps for center Eric Wood.
The starting offense has had 15 possessions through the first three games. I'm throwing out the one play, kneel down at the end of the first half last Saturday against Pittsburgh. In those 15 possessions, Fitzpatrick and company have produced 2 touchdowns and 1 field goal. There was 1 turnover(CJ Spiller fumble) and 11 punts.
The Bills have managed a grand total of 14 first downs. There were no first downs on 7 of those 15 drives and 5 of the 15 have been 3 and out.
One of their touchdowns came after a drive start at the Steelers 49 yard line. The field goal was the result of a drive that began at the Washington 21 yard line and went backwards for a net loss of 4 yards.
In a summer where we spent quite a bit of time talking about the potential impact new quarterbacks coach David Lee could have on Fitzpatrick, the star pupil looks like the same inconsistent signal caller he's been through his NFL career.
There have been too many times where Fitzpatrick has flat out missed guys or been off target. Even on one of his completions in the game with Pittsburgh, Stevie Johnson had to lay out to make the catch and left himself vulnerable to a potentially dangerous hit.
I know its pre season and the players and coaches will talk about how they aren't showing anything until the games count but it shouldn't be too much to ask your offense to look competent at the very least. Fitzpatrick has completed 48% of his passes thus far. In case you were wondering, he completed 61% during the 2011 pre season.
I'm not panicking and I'm not calling for Fitzpatrick to be benched. This is his offense and I don't think the Bills would consider making a change unless the season turns into a five alarm fire. I don't believe Fitzpatrick has a short leash.
Even if you thought that, you probably changed your thinking after the release of Vince Young and the trade for Tarvaris Jackson. Who knows how long it will take for Jackson to get a handle on the Bills complicated offense and develop that critical chemistry with the receivers when getting very limited reps as the likely second string quarterback.
The Bills are going all in with Fitzpatrick and if I was Gailey, I would look to my running game to help out my struggling quarterback. The Bills haven't run the ball much in the pre-season but when they have its been effective. Fred Jackson looks like the guy who made the offense go during the first half of last season.
I know its a passing league but Fitzpatrick isn't a "put it all on his shoulders and he'll get the job done" guy. He can win with help around him. He should have additional aid this season with an improved defense but Gailey can help him out even more by leaning on the running game.
I still think the Bills can win with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback but after the last three games, I'm starting to wonder if I'm just trying to convince myself like I did with JP Losman and Trent Edwards.
If you’re worried about how the Bills offense has looked through the first two games of the pre-season, it could be worse. They could be the New York Jets.
The Jets offense has been grounded. They did not score a touchdown in losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants. I’m not just talking starters here, it’s the entire offense.
New York has managed but three field goals although they did play a playoff team from last season(Cincinnati) and the defending Super Bowl champions(NY Giants). The Bills offense has struggled against Washington and Minnesota, neither of whom made the post season in 2011.
I was on Long Island over the weekend so I took the opportunity to watch the annual Jets-Giants exhibition game on Saturday night. I also saw most of their game with the Bengals and there were striking similarities.
Both Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow have struggled, which is what they were doing during training camp workouts in Cortland.
Mind you the Jets did play without their best receiver Santonio Holmes in both games and were also down two other wide outs, Jeremy Kerley and Chaz Schilens in the game against the Giants.
Sanchez looked shaky although his line didn’t give him much time to throw. For those of you worried about the lack of plays from Mario Williams to this point of the pre-season, he should have a field day on opening day against Jets right tackle Wayne Hunter, assuming Hunter still has the job on September 9th.
Sanchez threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and was unable to put together a scoring drive. The Jets started one possession at the Giants 45 yard line but turned the ball over on downs after being stuffed on 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 run plays.
Exit Sanchez(who has been sacked five times so far) and enter(to more applause than Sanchez got), Tim Tebow. The Jets number two signal caller faced second stringers but didn’t fare much better than Sanchez.
Tebow was ……Tebow. He’d make a couple of good throws then make some hideous ones. Tebow completed a couple of short passes to begin his first drive. Later on,he had a wide open Stephen Hill(good looking rookie wide receiver from Georgia Tech) in the end zone for an easy touchdown. But Tebow badly underthrew him and the Jets settled for a field goal.
He missed badly on two passes that should have been easy completions to backs in the flat. Tebow did use his legs to his benefit, running for a first down on third and six. The Jets did not use Tebow in any wildcat formations. Apparently they are waiting to unleash that on the Bills in week one.
As for Tebow-Mania, we had a caller on the show last week from the New York metropolitan area and he told us the media wasn’t getting carried away with their coverage of Tebow.
I would beg to differ. There’s been a daily “Tebow Tracker” in the New York Post. Didn’t see one for Sanchez anywhere in the paper.
In last Friday’s “Tebow Tracker”, I found out what time he took the field at Cortland for the previous day’s practice. It listed the exact times he did drills and how he did in the various drills. It included a quote from Tebow about his day of work and a quote from Head Coach Rex Ryan on Tebow’s performance that day.
For what its worth, I also learned the media kept stats for both quarterbacks during their camp workouts. Their numbers might make what Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen did at St. John Fisher look like Pro Bowl performances.
Sanchez ended up completing 52% of his passes with 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions and he was sacked 20 times.
Tebow had a 48% completion rate with only 2 TD passes, 3 INT’s and 29 sacks.
We should always take what we see in the pre-season(good and bad) with a grain of salt but I still think this is an indication of what will happen with the Jets offense this season.
A new system with a new Offensive Coordinator(former Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano), a shaky offensive line, a number one quarterback constantly looking over his shoulder(and always answering the questions about how he feels when Tebow receives more applause than he does), an inconsistent backup qb and a thin corps of receivers should add up to a fairly ineffective unit.
It should also add up to a productive day for the Bills defense in the opener at MetLife Stadium. You might want to bet the under that day when you take into account how the Bills offense has looked in their rehearsals.
In addition, the Jets defense held Eli Manning and the Giants offense out of the end zone during their one half of work the other night.
Derek Hagan probably entered training camp on the outside looking in as far as a spot on the 53 man roster was concerned. But a solid camp has likely elevated him, at the very least, to “on the bubble” if not the front runner for the final spot in the wide receivers group.
The 27 year old Hagan has been pretty consistent when it comes to getting open and catching the ball. He had a highlight reel catch during Monday’s practice leaping up over double coverage to reel in a downfield throw from Tyler Thigpen.
Claimed off waivers by the Bills last season, Hagan played in the final four games and had 12 catches with one touchdown. His best game came at New England when he caught seven balls for 89 yards.
He’s right in the thick of a numbers battle at wide receiver. You can lock in Stevie Johnson, David Nelson, Donald Jones and T.J. Graham for four of the spots. The question is do the Bills keep five or six at that position? Remember, Brad Smith can be on the roster as the third quarterback but he can also play wide receiver as can C.J. Spiller if there is a run of injuries like last season.
“From a competition standpoint, its very healthy” Hagan said during an interview on WGR. “ We got a bunch of guys that can pretty much do the same thing but we know deep down it’s a competition. Guys are trying to help each other but at the same time we know there are spots open and it pretty much comes down to who’s working hard, who’s doing the right thing, who’s catching the ball and who’s getting open. That’s who’s going to win the job.”
Hagan is fighting for a spot along with Naaman Roosevelt, Marcus Easley, Ruvell Martin, David Clowney, Kamar Aiken and Derek Session.
You can see that Hagan, who left Arizona State in 2006 as the Pac-10’s all time leading receiver and a two time All American, is building some chemistry with Ryan Fitzpatrick and that too will be a factor in whether or not Hagan makes the roster.
“When I first came in he didn’t know me, now we’re getting the time” Hagan said. “It really helped when Stevie(Johnson) was out in the off season just getting on the same page with him(Fitzpatrick) and having him get the trust factor with myself. Hopefully all the hard work will pay off when the regular season gets going.
You can listen to the entire interview with Derek Hagan:
As you go through the Bills schedule, trying to figure out which games are wins and which are losses, I’ll bet you don’t spend much time thinking about the November 25th contest at Indianapolis.
You probably think “win” before you even finish saying “Indianapolis” to yourself.
You might want to leave a little more time to mull that one over. I’m probably violating the cardinal rule of putting too much stock in a pre-season game but that “lock” over the Colts doesn’t seem as certain after watching the NFL debut of Andrew Luck.
I, like many others, was thoroughly impressed by his college career but figured there would be some growing pains in the pros.
Luck not only comes in with the “can’t miss” label and the pressure of being the number one overall pick in the draft but he also steps into humungous shoes left behind by future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
Despite that, the Stanford product looked like a proven veteran during his nearly one half of football against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. Cool, calm, in charge and under control are just some of the words that describe his performance.
If his career lives up to its hype, people will say you could tell from the start that Luck was bound for stardom. How many rookie quarterbacks throw a touchdown pass on their very first play?
Lets not go overboard though. Luck threw a 5 yard screen pass and Donald Brown did most of the work on the 63 yard scoring play.
But Luck led two other scoring drives and executed the offense almost flawlessly. A stark contrast to the performance of the Bills offense against Washington.
Luck showed a strong pocket presence but when flushed out by blitzes, he remained calm and made strong, accurate throws on the run. He wasn’t flustered by any blitzes or pressure from the Rams.
Whether it was throwing to his left, right, down the middle or outside the numbers, Luck displayed ability to make all the throws. On one touchdown pass he looked down the middle to help freeze the safety, then turned to his right and threw a strike to the corner of the end zone.
He was 10 of 16 for 188 yards and two TD passes but his numbers should have been better since at least two of those incompletions were drops.
I thought Robert Griffin III looked good against the Bills but Luck looked much better facing the Rams although he got more snaps, threw the ball more often and played against what should be the weaker of the two defenses.
Like I said, it made me think twice about the game with the Colts who might actually flirt with .500 when you think about the division they play in and when you take into account their schedule.
In case you are worried about Luck and the Colts, I do have some good news for you. The Rams first string defense was shredded and the offensive line still can’t keep Sam Bradford from getting hit so go ahead and lock in that win on December 9th.
A year ago the Bills needed Shawne Merriman to play like the guy who was “lights out” in San Diego. Now they just need Merriman to be a situational pass rusher and that seems more realistic.
Couple that new role with off season surgery to repair an Achilles injury and Bills fans might finally see the 28 year old Merriman make it through an entire season in Buffalo.
Merriman has looked good to this point at training camp but the same can be said about last year’s camp when he was one of the stars of St. John Fisher.
It carried into the pre-season but Merriman eventually broke down after five games and was placed on season ending injured reserve.
The Washington D.C. native opted for the Achilles procedure after trying the non- surgical route in the past and he says this is the best he’s felt in three years.
“I can explode and come off the ball for one and I’m not worried about getting injured” Merriman said during an appearance on the WGR Morning Show on Monday. “When you’re playing that way and worried about something possibly could happen if you do a certain thing, you can’t play. There’s no way to compete like that and I wasn’t competing for those years.”
Merriman had an eye popping 39 ½ sacks in 42 games over his first three seasons in San Diego. Over the last four years with the Chargers and Bills, he’s recorded a mere six sacks in only 23 games played.
Merriman is expected to play in Thursday’s pre-season opener against the Washington Redskins at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
But he’ll be in a new position and asked to do less. Merriman has shifted from outside linebacker to defensive end and has been playing on the second string line in camp.
Head Coach Chan Gailey has said if they can get 20 great pass rushes a game from Merriman it would be “super” for the Bills. The 6’4” 261 pound Merriman has no problem with the reduced on field responsibility.
“That’s what they need me to do. Obviously we have four guys on the end who can play” Merriman said. “If you look around the league now, including the Giants who won the Super Bowl, if that’s what it takes to win a Super Bowl and that’s what it takes to get us better as a team, then I’m okay with that.”
Here is the entire interview with Shawne Merriman:
Amidst the seriousness of training camp and the pressure of high expectations for the 2012 Buffalo Bills, Marcell Dareus had a chance to sit back, relax and have some laughs(a few at our expense) during a visit with the WGR Morning Show on Friday.
When the 6'3", 331 pound tackle came over, we were discussing Stevie Johnson's latest touchdown celebration idea. During the John Murphy Show on WGR, Johnson said he was thinking about jumping into the stands, having some popcorn and watching a play with the fans after he scores.
We asked Dareus what he would do in the event he scored a TD. "If I ever score a touchdown, I'm gonna do a lot of stuff" Dareus said while flashing a huge grin and laughing. "I believe in my kicker so I think if we get a 40 yard penalty, he'll make it."
When pressed for more specifics on a celebration, Dareus said he might line up the defensive linemen and use them as bowling pins. He started to say he would do a front flip into the stands but stopped himself from getting too carried away.
The University of Alabama product scored one touchdown in his Crimson Tide career and it came in the National Championship game. He did what shouldn't even be called a "celebration", throwing the ball away and extending his arms out parallel to the ground but he told us he still got in trouble with Coach Nick Saban.
Dareus did talk about the potential on defense and specifically what might happen when the defensive linemen are "unleashed".
"You can't open it up all the way" the Alabama native said. "We're not trying to hurt anybody(in camp). When the pre-season comes and the regular season, we get to open it up all the way. Don't hold back on offensive linemen, don't hold back on running backs and especially not the quarterbacks."
I asked Marcell if he could demonstrate "unleashing the beast" on Jeremy who pointed out there was a big metal table between the two of them. "The table won't last that long" Dareus joked. At least I think it was a joke.
Dareus also talked about the pressure of playing at a high profile program like Alabama and how much he has learned from fellow tackle Kyle Williams. He also reeled in Jeremy and me hook,line and sinker about a cassette tape he was carrying.
Here's the entire interview, give it a listen and have some laughs.
There's a major celebrity at Bills training camp. That's what it feels like anytime Mario Williams takes to the practice field. I sit in the stands to watch practice and will move around from time to time. No matter where I sit, the conversations around me usually center on big number 94.
Mario Williams reminds me of Bruce. Springsteen, not Smith. When the announcement comes out that he's going on tour(we'll use free agency in this case) you're hoping he's coming to your town. When the tour date is announced you're so excited to know you'll see him in person, you buy tickets as soon as they're available and you don't think twice about how much they'll cost.
Then the countdown and anticipation begin. I am counting down the days until August 24th when I will see Springsteen in Toronto. The Buffalo show was so outstanding I jumped on the opportunity to see him again. Bills fans are counting down the days until September 9th when Williams and company make their tour debut at Met Life Stadium. Maybe you bought season tickets in the days after Williams signed the largest contract in Bills history. Maybe you have tickets to one game or two but will run to the box office after watching him play in person.
The E Street Band is one of the greatest ever but there's no question the star is Bruce Springsteen. The Bills might have a dominant defense this season and one of the best starting defensive lines in franchise history but there's no question who the star of the show is, Mario Williams.
As I stated, its been interesting to watch the fan reaction to Williams at training camp. Last Thursday during the first practice, fans quietly watched the offense work out on the main field and then cheered when number 94 jogged onto that field with the rest of the defense,
During the Wednesday night practice, it seemed like they cheered anything and everything Williams did, even his work during the position drills. During the team portion of the practice, Williams would have had a sack on Ryan Fitzpatrick when the QB rolled out to his side. On one pass rush he drew two offensive linemen while Kyle Williams stunted to the outside and had a clear path to Fitzpatrick who would have been absolutely crushed. Later the 6'7" Williams showed how long he can be by reaching up and knocking down a Fitzpatrick pass.
Before I get too carried away, this isn't a one man show. In theory, Williams will have the E Street Band working with him. You can't help but stop, think and possibly drool a little about the front four the Bills will put on the field against the Jets and Mark Sanchez on September 9th. Sanchez shouldn't be worried about Tim Tebow, he should be worried about Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Anderson coming after him.
Talk about pick your poison. No question teams will look to double team Mario Williams and use combinations of linemen, tight ends and running backs to slow him down. That leaves Anderson with his explosive first step coming off the opposite edge and the behemoths in the middle who are both adept at collapsing the pocket.
The Bills as a team ended up with 29 sacks last season. The starting front four(if they stay healthy and play every game) could surpass that total all by themselves. If you combine the average yearly sack totals of that quartet, it comes to 22 1/2. Keep in mind Mario Williams missed 11 games last year and 3 more in 2010. Still he averaged just under 9 sacks a season in his Houston Texans career.
Kyle Williams had no sacks last season but was playing on one leg for 5 games before going on injured reserve. The LSU product had a combined 9 1/2 sacks the previous two seasons when he played on bad defenses and had little help around him.
Dareus had 5 1/2 sacks as a rookie last season and Anderson has averaged 6 sacks a season but had 10 last year in New England while playing in only 47% of the Patriots defensive plays.
I'm thinking that group of four combine for around 30 sacks which means the Bills have a very good shot at reaching the 40 sack total as a team for the first time since 2006 and just the fourth time since 2000.
When you see Bruce Springsteen in concert you stand up, cheer, shout and dance. Bills fans are hoping to do all of that and see some dancing on the field(sack dances) with their best pass rusher since "the other Bruce" was playing in town.
From the "for what its worth" department. Mario Williams has 53 sacks in his first 82 games. Aaron Schobel had 47 1/2 at the same point of his career while Bruce Smith had 67 1/2.