Each week, Voice of Bulls Football Paul Peck will preview the upcoming game.
Buffalo (0-0) vs. Albany (0-0)
Points. Lots of them. Scoring them. Stopping them. How coaching will help to score them, and stop them. That's what I'm thinking about on the eve of the 2015 UB Bulls season, and the coaching debut of Lance Leipold. It may be a little simplistic, but I think we're going to spend a lot of time this season talking about points. The Bulls offense is built to score a lot them. The defense is still learning how to stop them. That's not such a bad thing, especially in the MAC, where most teams are built the same way. Last year, the Bulls offense scored 32.3 points per game, one of five MAC teams to average more than 30 points. Six teams, including the Bulls, gave up more than 30 points per game. This year's offense, led by senior Joe Licata and seven other returning starters, has more weapons and a more diverse scheme. The defense, which returns only five starters, is young and in transition to a 4-3. As Leipold said, the defense "is a work in progress." So what's the point? Points.
Bullseye on: Buffalo Offense
If the Bulls will have to outscore a few teams early in the year as the defense finds its groove, it's good to have Joe Licata to make sure that happens. The senior QB is one of, if not the best QB in the MAC. He appears to have really found a groove in the Bulls new offense, led by coordinator Andy Kotenicki. The offense will ask Joe to make a lot of quick decisions, and use all of the available weapons. Joe is fully healed from offseason hip surgery, and has trimmed down by 17 pounds. By the time this season is over, he'll likely own almost every UB passing record.
Joe will be looking to throw a TD pass in his 13th straight game. Licata has six of his top eight receivers back from last year, but it's the one new weapon that has him excited. UAB transfer Collin Lisa has caught everything, and gives the Bulls offense a shifty target from the slot. Lisa caught 115 passes his final two years of high school. Watching practice, he has a style that reminds you of Wes Welker, in the ways he finds open spots in between defenders….Last year's top targets Ron Willoughby, Marcus McGill and Jacob Martinez are all back. Malcolm Robinson will see more action, and freshman Brandon Smiley was a preseason standout.
When Licata wants to rest his arm, he can hand the ball to Anthone Taylor. The senior running back is coming off an outstanding 1,403 yard season, and he's just 198 yards shy of joining James Starks and Branden Oliver as UB's 2,000-yard career rushers. Backup RB Jordan Johnson has trimmed down and looks quick and powerful. Freshman Johnathan Hawkins will be the third back.
The offensive line has four players who have started before. But LT John Kling played right tackle last year and RT Robert Blodgett played guard. LG Dillon Guy has 11 career starts, but did not play last year. RG Brandon Manosalvas did start twice at that spot early last season. New starting center James O'Hagan is just the second center who has ever snapped to Licata, as he replaces three-year starter Trevor Sales.
The Albany defense is the strength of their team. Last year, they led FCS in turnover margin, with a +15. They forced 20 fumbles. Their first and third leading tacklers return in LB Michael Nicastro and FS Kyle Sadowski. Their defensive coordinator is former Miami Hurricanes standout Bernard Clark. Nicastro's 120 tackles were third in the Colonial Athletic Assocation. Sadowski had four interceptions.
Bullseye on: Buffalo Defense
The big change for the Bulls defense is the move from a 3-3-5 to a more traditional 4-3 set. That meant a few linebackers moved to defense end, and some safeties are now linebackers. That should improve the D's speed and quickness. Only five starters return, and just three seniors are in the starting lineup. But if you're going to be inexperienced on defense, it's good to have solid players at cornerback. The Bulls do. Senior Marqus Baker, an expected starter last year, is healthy and ready to go. Boise Ross, who moved from receiver last year, has settled into the position and was a star in the preseason. His old receiving skills were on display as he made at least three diving interceptions. Baker and Ross will play a major role in limiting big plays, the Bulls biggest problem last year.
The safeties will be Ryan Williamson and Andrews Dadeboe, and both are big hitters. Among the backups in the secondary will be UAB transfer Jordan Collier, redshirt freshman Brandon Williams and true freshmen Cameron Lewis and Brandon Stanback.
Okezie Alozie is one of those senior starters. He's the defensive captain, and the unit will take their cues from the physical linebacker. Middle linebacker Nick Gilbo, who has played a lot the last two years, gets his first chance to start. The other LB position will be manned by Brandon Berry and Kyril Threats while Jarrett Franklin recovers from an injury.
The defensive line is going to be fun to watch. They are young, but very athletic. Solomon Jackson has made the conversion from LB to DE. Buffalo native and former walk-on Demone Harris will use his six-foot-four-inch height to knock down passes and stuff the run. Backing them up are a pair of athletic newcomers, redshirt-freshman Randy Anyanwu and true-freshman Charles Harris. Brandon Crawford moves from end to tackle and may be ready for a breakout season. He might be the most athletic player on the unit. Solid and steady Max Perisse added muscle to fill the nose tackle spot. 307 pound Chris Ford will also see plenty of time as the Bulls look to improve on a run defense that gave up 4.3 yards per rush.
New defensive coordinator Brian Borland has emphasized takeaways. A few of those a game will go a long way to help the young defenders gain some confidence and help take some pressure off the offense. Albany suffered big hits to their offense. They lost the bulk of their skill positions, including their quarterback, leading rusher and second-leading receiver. The new Great Danes QB is D.J. Crook, who spent last year as Christian Hackenberg's backup at Penn State. He played in just two games for the Nittany Lions, and threw one TD pass. Crook can run, and he's tough. He does have top target Josh Gontarek, who was the CAA's offensive rookie of the year in 2014. The wideout had 58 catches. Both running backs are new, redshirt-freshman Elliott Croskey and freshman Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks. The offensive line does bring back a veteran group. Starting left guard Michael Senn is a native of Orchard Park.
Bullseye on: Lance Leipold
As you watch, and hopefully get to know the Bulls new coach, one thing will jump out at you. His focus. Whether it's at practice, in an interview or meeting fans, you can just tell that he always has a plan and he knows how to get it done. That's how you become the fastest coach to 100 wins in NCAA history. Unlike past Bulls coaches, he has been a head coach. An incredibly successful one. That means he doesn't have to learn on the job. Sure, it will take some time for him to get adjusted to Division I and this team. But that will happen quickly. Because of Leipold's incredible success at Wisconsin-Whitewater, everybody around here knows all about 109-6, his career record. But don't bring it up to the Bulls head coach. All he's thinking about is making that mark…110-6.
Please join me, color analyst Jim Kubiak, sideline reporter Scott Wilson, game host Brad Riter and postgame host Bob Gaughan for the broadcast on the Bulls Football Network. Our pregame show starts at 2:30pm. You can hear it in Buffalo on ESPN 1520 (www.espn1520.com), in Rochester on Sports 1280 WHTK (www.whtk.com) & in New York City on 570 WMCA (www.wmca.com).