By Paul Peck, Buffalo Sports Page
Ready to continue the momentum from 2017. Ready to compete for the Mid-American Conference East Division title. Ready to compete for a MAC Championship. Ready to remove any doubt about being bowl eligible. Ready to make it the most memorable UB football season since 2008’s amazing run to the MAC title and International Bowl.
A month’s worth of spring practices wrapped up Friday night with the annual Blue-White Spring Game. It wasn’t much of a game, as most of the starters saw limited time. That in itself is an indication of the program’s development. There was no need to risk injury for the standout players. They’ve already proved that they can perform when it counts.
The Bulls finished 6-6 last season, winning their final three games to become bowl eligible. They did not get a postseason invitation, as more teams were eligible than there were bowl spots. The Bulls lost their six games by a 29 points, with the largest margin 10 points and two one point losses. It was a monumental step forward from 2016’s 2-10 team.
That’s big reason why the expectations and anticipation for 2018 are real. Here are some of the football reasons why the Bulls are headed towards a breakout season.
Nearly all of the players who contributed to last season’s overall success are returning. The Bulls bring back eight starters on offense, six on defense and two of their three specialists. Of the team’s five All-MAC players in 2017, four return for this season. The returners include all three quarterbacks who started games, all but one running back who carried the ball, three of the four top receivers, three of the five offensive lineman, the leading tackler and the second and third leading sackers.
On offense, the Bulls return 99% of their rushing yards, 73% of their receptions and 74% of their receiving yards.
As mentioned, all three quarterbacks who started a game in 2017 are returning. If the Bulls hadn’t been force to play three QB’s because of injury, they might have won more than six games. UB led the MAC in passing yards, even with the three signal callers. Tyree Jackson, Drew Anderson and Kyle Vantrease give UB incredible depth at the most important position. The team also adds West Seneca West’s Matt Myers, who was the WNY Player of the Year after leading the Indians to a state title.
Tyree Jackson & Drew Anderson
The Bulls may have two of top five quarterbacks in the Mid-American Conference. Jackson is the starter, a towering and strong-armed passer who continues to get better. At 6-7, 245 pounds, he is a giant man and outstanding athlete who can run and throw. A knee injury forced Jackson to miss four games last season. When he returned, he emerged as a pocket passer who averaged 341 yards in the last four games of the season. Only a junior, Jackson has NFL potential if he continues to improve and dominate. He is a candidate for conference player of the year.
Anderson replaced the injured Jackson and threw for 10 touchdowns and just one interception before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. In the memorable seven overtime loss to Western Michigan, Anderson set a MAC record by throwing for 597 yards. He could start on almost every other MAC team.
The Bulls senior wide receiver is the top returning wideout in the nation, and a potential NFL draft pick. Johnson was second in the nation with 1356 yards. His 14 TD set a UB school record. He is big (6-2, 207), strong, athletic and fast. During spring practice, there were at last 2-3 catches every workout that looked perfectly in place inside the Bills Ad-Pro Fieldhouse, where the Bulls worked out. Early 2019 NFL Draft projections have Johnson as one of the top 10 receivers. No one in the MAC could cover him last year, and the Bulls developed inventive ways to get the ball in his hands. He’ll face a lot of double coverage this season, but the Jackson-Johnson combination may be unstoppable.
In two years with UB, the Bulls middle linebacker has racked up 277 tackles. Last season, with 154, he was second in the NCAA. Hodge expanded his game by adding three sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He is the leader of the UB defense, and a candidate for the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year. The last Bull to win that? Another Khail named Mack.
In his fourth season, Bulls Head Coach Lance Leipold has clearly shown the ability to make the jump from Division III, where he won 109 games and six national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater. Helping him do that is a coaching staff that stays completely intact from last year. Thanks to a new NCAA rule, the team was actually allowed to add a 10th assistant coach. In that case, Roc Bellantoni was moved up from the team’s Director of Player Personnel to defensive ends coach.
Belief & Confidence
Personnel and coaching are important. But so is team’s ability to believe and be confident. That was obvious during the spring workouts. There was a crispness and familiarity to every practice. The players know the schemes, know what they are supposed to do. The new players being counted on are mostly players from within the program who have been preparing for their chance to become starters. There’s a sense that the Bulls know they are ready to take a leap forward. A number of them have made it clear that it’s “bowl game or bust.
The Bulls open the 2018 season at home vs. Delaware State on September 1. For the full schedule, visit UBBulls.com.