by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

For a fellow that coached his team to a 5-19 record in his first two seasons in Buffalo, Jeff Quinn is unusually calm, cool and confident. “I really like where we are with our leadership, our attitude, our work ethic, our coaching staff and our personnel," said the Bulls’ head coach at the MAC media event, "I feel strongly that our football team is fully capable of getting where we want to be." Now Quinn needs to match what he thinks about the Buffalo football squad to actual performances.

The offense has some building blocks in place that could help the program get off the mat after being knocked down hard the last two seasons. The return of a deep phalanx of offensive linemen is always a decent way to begin offensive improvement. Eight of the Bulls’ top 10 “big uglies” from last season are back in action, and that doesn’t include 2010 left tackle starter Pat Wilson (injured in ‘11). There was some shuffling was done during the spring, as soph guard Andre Davis moved to tackle and last year’s starter at center, sr. Graham Whinery, was slated to move back to the guard position he played in 2010. Regardless of where the pegs fit into the holes, the offensive line will be two-deep almost everywhere. And they’ll be blocking for the best returning runner in the conference in jr. Branden Oliver (right). The fireplug Oliver (5-8, 204) gained 1395 yards and scored 13 TDs last year, catching 38 passes along the way to being named first-team all-MAC in 2011. Expect much more of the same for Oliver and the Bull attack.

Although Buffalo lost a couple of good receivers last year, Quinn returns 6-4 jr. Alex Neutz, who has made 17 starts the last two seasons, was named 3rd team all-MAC in 2011 after catching 43 passes and has exhibited some explosiveness, averaging 15.3 ypc and scoring eight times in his first two seasons. The Bulls also return jr. TE Alex Dennison, a 249-lb. ex-QB, who only caught five passes a season ago but could take on a bigger role along with 260-lb. TE Jimmy Gordon (also five receptions) in 2012.

Now for the offensive issues Quinn faces. The quarterback who will trigger the Buffalo spread attack has yet to be determined. The field was narrowed down to two in spring, as jr. Alex Zordich, who’s played sparingly the last two seasons, and highly-touted redshirt frosh Joe Licata will battle it out. Spring observers in the Empire State said Licata is more accurate than Zordich (44 of 106, 41.5%, 1 TD, 9 ints. in 9 career appearances), and accordingly gave the RS frosh an edge by default. The other offensive stumbling block is that besides Neutz, the wide receiver position is a little thin. Soph Rudy Johnson is a converted QB trying to find some playing time at wideout, and jr. Fred Lee wasn’t exactly explosive last season, averaging just 6.9 ypc on his 20 catches. Offensive coordinator and receivers’ coach Alex Wood has some work to do with this group.

Defensively, there is reason to believe the team will be more effective. First, there was a smooth transition to the new defensive coordinator, as experienced coach Lou Tepper (head man at Illinois from 1991-96; HC in DII teams from 2000-2010) returns to the BCS-level. Tepper has the raw material necessary to make the defense more efficient. Jr. LB Khalil Mack (left, destroying a Northern Illinois runner last October) led the conference and was third in the nation in tackles-for-loss last season, and was named first team all-MAC. Spring workouts revealed the LB corps will be deep and talented, as the Bulls have additional returning starters in soph Lee Skinner (80 tackles LY) and sr. Jaleel Verser (6-6, 239; 49 stops), who are being pressed by some youngsters. This is a potentially dominant unit by MAC standards.

The secondary played it safe last season, as it ranked 101st in pass efficiency defense but held foes to just 204 ypg, good for 36th in the country. That disparity is a function of the 2ndary keeping the play in front of them, not gambling for interceptions (the defensive backs had just 5), and limiting yards after catch. The 2ndary has three returning starters including 2nd-team all-MAC CB Najja Johnson.

For a team that has a pair of special teams coordinators, Buffalo has had some of the sorriest kick and return teams around. Last season they ranked no better than 97th in the NCAA in any special team category. Soph Patrick Clarke was a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, making all 6 of his field goals after taking over the job in the final three games. All the return men will be new, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing considering the numbers last year’s crew produced.

Summary: Buffalo has done a fairly good job of recruiting in recent years, placing five players in the NFL with both Oliver and Mack expected to follow them shortly. The Bulls have attracted some quality offensive linemen the last five years, as not only Oliver, but before him James Starks (now of the Green Bay Packers) have moved the ball well on the ground. That being said, it can be a long way from 2-10 or 3-9 to the required 6-6 mark that will get Buffalo another bowl game and even farther to the MAC East title level that will boost them to Quinn’s goal, the conference championship game in Detroit. Given Buffalo’s draw this season in the schedule is unkind to say the least (crossover games against West powers Western Michigan, Northern Illinois and Toledo; non-conference meetings with Georgia and Pittsburgh). It’s hard to see Buffalo, which is just 30-90 SU the last 10 years, getting to six wins without some major luck playing a role.


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