Ignore the fact that Saturday’s high temperature at kickoff for the UB Bulls football season opening kickoff will be 88 degrees: It’s college football season.
Here are five things to watch Saturday (and beyond, as the Bulls seek their second back-to-back winning seasons since 1983-84 before they went Division I).
1. FCS opponent
After an overtime scare against Football Championship Subdivision team Stony Brook in 2013, the Bulls are not overlooking Duquesne in Saturday’s season opener, though the Dukes have never competed against a FBS team in its history and the Bulls have won seven straight home games dating back to 2012.
“We’re not taking anybody lightly, believe me,” fifth-year head coach Jeff Quinn said. “I’ve never done that. I’ve seen it happen where teams come in that first game and somebody gets upset – that’s not happening. We don’t have that mindset because of the way our kids understand the preparation part and we respect our opponents.”
The Pittsburgh college competes in the Northeast Conference in football where they finished 7-4 (4-2 conference) in 2013.
2. Joe Licata: a rare consecutive starter
The junior out of Williamsville South will be under center for the Bulls again this year. After leading the Bulls to one of their most successful seasons in school history as a sophomore, he becomes just the first opening-day quarterback to start consecutive seasons for UB since Drew Willy in 2008.
“That says to me Joe has really taken that responsibility very seriously,” Quinn said. “He’s certainly an outstanding football player, he makes a lot of plays downfield with his ability to throw the ball. He knows how to operate our system of offense.
Licata passed for 2,824 yards last season and is creeping up the program’s record books in completions, passing yards and touchdowns – of which he threw 24 with just eight interceptions in 2013. There will be more pressure on him though with a crop of less experienced running backs who will try and fill the 1,535 rushing yard hole left by Branden Oliver.
3. Maintaining the run game:
Three different running backs will see time at running back after the loss of Oliver who’s now with the San Diego Chargers. Quinn says Anthone Taylor has earned the starting role, though Devin Campbell and former Sweet Home quarterback Jordan Johnson will see carries in certain packages.
Taylor was solid in 2013 rushing just shy of 400 yards (4.9 avg.) and three touchdowns. Campbell is converting to running back from slot receiver where he caught 25 balls for 173 yards and a score.
Quinn also says he expects the RBs to help block up front – something he praised Oliver of succeeding at with his stocky 5-foot-8, 200-pound frame.
“That’s probably a question mark that I have: when teams pressure us, who’s going to step up in there and stick his nose right into a linebacker coming up the middle?” Quinn said.
4. Experienced O-Line
The Bulls lost six All-Conference players, but not a single one from the offensive line. All five starters return for this group, creating cohesion and stability for Licata, as well as the trio of running backs: Jake Silas moves from right to left tackle; Andre Davis will start his 38th career game Saturday at left guard; Center Trevor Sales has started every game the past two seasons; Robert Blodtgett starts at right guard after starting eight of the last nine in 2013; and John Kling will protect Licata’s arm at right tackle, moving from left tackle.
“The fans in the stands don’t really see what we’re doing, but we understand as a group,” Sales said. “If we want to run the ball it’s up to us. We have to make the holes. If we want to pass the ball, it’s up to us. . . . We understand it all starts up front. We understand it’s a big part of the game.”
With help from the offensive line, the Bulls ranked in the top five in the MAC in both rushing and passing offense last season.
5. Filling the void on defense
Khalil Mack was a top five NFL draft pick this year for a reason. On the team that ranked second in the MAC in points allowed, the conference Defensive Player of the Year had 100 tackles including 19 for a loss of 98 yards, 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, three interceptions and five forced fumbles.
Lee Skinner definitely jumps out as someone to try and fill Mack’s shoes. He ranked second on the team in tackles each of the last three seasons – second to Mack, of course – and as a senior he’s the most experienced of the linebacking core.
Returning All-MAC third-team selection Adam Redden will start at strong safety after recording 12.5 tackles for loss last season will lead the secondary.
And when talking about any 3-4 scheme, as the Bulls operate, it’s impossible to forget the importance of the man in the middle: nose tackle Kristjan Sokoli. Despite the size required for the position, it demands athleticism stereotypically uncharacteristic to the defensive and offensive lines to stop the run and pass. Movement and footwork are key to being an anchor. Sokoli last year had 29 tackles including five for a loss.