No. 111: Buffalo
By Paul Myerberg // May 11, 2011
Say one thing for Buffalo in 2010: in the past, 2-10 would have been greeted with a shrug. While it’s not quite met with indignation these days, last fall’s slide was greeted with frustration, which is a start. In other words, Buffalo has won, and the fans like the way it feels. That’s a big first step for a program that has experienced nothing but heartbreak and disappointment for decades. Think of it as the development of a program: losing is step one; unexpected success step two; consistent success step three; unexpected excellence step four; consistent excellence step five. Buffalo mastered step one, experienced a taste of step two but needs to pass the next significant hurdle, that of winning with consistency.
12 (9 offense, 3 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 3
- Sept. 10
- Sept. 17
at Ball St.
- Sept. 24
- Oct. 1
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 15
- Oct. 22
- Oct. 29
at Miami (Ohio)
- Nov. 12
at E. Michigan
- Nov. 19
- Nov. 25
Last year’s prediction
In Quinn’s favor is a relatively easy schedule, which features at least one winnable game in non-conference play and the aforementioned favorable stretch in MAC action. Yet, as stated, I have a few concerns. First is the status of the offense, which will be significantly weaker at quarterback and receiver. The defensive line is not in great shape, though perhaps the Bulls can offset that weakness with a strong back seven on defense. That back seven does rank among the best in the MAC, but will it be enough to help Buffalo improve upon last season’s defensive decline? I like Quinn, but I believe 2010 will be a rebuilding year for this program: let’s see if Quinn has the dedication and coaching acumen to replicate Gill’s success.
In a nutshell What went right? Not much. The offense was a failure; unable to run the no-huddle look, the Bulls were as inept as any group in the country. The Bulls landed only one win over F.B.S. competition after four consecutive seasons of at least three victories in MAC play. The only MAC win came against Bowling Green, which went 2-10 itself — the win did come on the road, to give Quinn’s team some credit. What was really strange, however, is that Buffalo was never really bad in the New Mexico sense of the word, just not good. Rarely blown out, often very competitive and always giving their all, the Bulls were never painful to watch, merely frustrating. That’s quite a compliment for a two-win team, by the way.
High point A 28-26 win at Bowling Green. The victory pushed Buffalo to 2-3, joining a 31-0 victory over Rhode Island in the season opener. The road win over the Falcons was Buffalo’s most complete game of the year: 441 yards of offense, great balance offensively, solid work on third down, 176 yards allowed on defense and a sizable advantage in time of possession. All went well, minus the six Buffalo turnovers. Yeah, six turnovers.
Low point Relative competitiveness in each of the conference losses, minus an ugly two-week showing against Temple and Northern Illinois. That doesn’t excuse a 21-17 loss at home to Eastern Michigan, and it sure doesn’t excuse a loss to Akron in the season finale; the Zips entered that game winless.
Tidbit Statistical categories where Buffalo improved from 2009 to 2010: pass defense, total defense, fumbles, kickoff returns, punt returns, net punting and penalties. That’s not too bad, right? Well, the Bulls certainly did take a sizable step back elsewhere, as one would expect after going 2-10. Among the most egregious: 9.9 fewer points per game, down to 14.2 points per game; 107.7 fewer yards of offense per game; an additional 27.4 yards per game given up on the ground; an additional 4.0 points per game allowed; a six percent on third down conversions; two minutes fewer in time of possession — you get the idea. Those things add up.
Former players in the N.F.L.
7 S Mike Newton (Indianapolis), OG Jamey Richard (Indianapolis), WR Naaman Roosevelt (Buffalo), DE Trevor Scott (Oakland), RB James Starks (Green Bay), CB Josh Thomas (Dallas), QB Drew Willy (New York Jets).
Arbitrary top five list
Writers with Buffalo ties, with notable work
1. Mark Twain, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby.”
3. J.M. Coetzee, “Disgrace.”
4. Paul Horgan, “Larry of Sante Fe.”
5. William Wells Brown, “Clotel.”
Jeff Quinn (Elmhurst College ’84), 2-10 after one season at Buffalo. After more than a quarter-century as a college assistant, Quinn finally got his chance — though it wasn’t a great start. His 27-year coaching career has seen him pass successful stints on both the F.C.S. and F.B.S. level, most notably as an assistant under Brian Kelly at three stops. Quinn was Kelly’s top offensive lieutenant at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, winning conference championships at each stop. He spent 15 seasons at Grand Valley State – the final 13 under Kelly – winning a pair of F.C.S. national championships from 2002-3. He followed Kelly to two successive F.B.S. stops, beginning with Central Michigan in 2004. As Kelly’s lead assistant, Quinn helped C.M.U. go from four wins in his debut season to a 10-4 mark in 2006, which included a MAC championship and a Motor City Bowl win over Middle Tennessee State. Quinn was the interim coach for that game, following Kelly’s early departure for Cincinnati. Quinn joined his mentor shortly thereafter, taking the same position with the Bearcats, and helped U.C. to the best three-year stretch in program history. Cincinnati went 34-6 from 2007-9, winning a pair of Big East titles — and playing in a pair of B.C.S. bowl games — and rolling through the 2009 regular season undefeated. As at Central Michigan, Quinn led Cincinnati into the 2010 Sugar Bowl after Kelly agreed to terms with Notre Dame. It is in this area that Quinn had a leg up on fellow rookie coaches in the F.B.S.; not only did he bring 27 years of assistant experience to the table, but he has twice led a team — as the head man — through bowl preparations. That didn’t mean much in 2010, but creating a winning program at Buffalo is a marathon, not a race.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Seeing how the offense struggled with the no-huddle, spread look in 2010, it’s really no surprise that Quinn opted to make changes in philosophy and on his coaching staff. Out are offensive coordinator Greg Forrest and wide receivers coach Juan Taylor; in come Alex Wood and Don Patterson. Both have decades of experience: Wood, who was with Miami (Ohio) last fall, has called plays on both the college and N.F.L. level, while Patterson, who was last the head coach at Western Illinois, spent 20 years as an assistant to Hayden Fry at Iowa. Two steady hands to help bridge the way from a spread look to a more conventional attack, though one that maintains many aspects of the spread? That’s not a bad idea.
Players to watch
A more streamlined and simplified offense will take enormous pressure off Buffalo’s quarterbacks, who didn’t take to last season’s no-huddle attack. Both starters return: Jerry Davis opened in the year in the starting lineup, lost his job to Alex Zordich then retained his role once Zordich suffered a season-ending rib injury in November. The results weren’t pretty for either passer, as the pair combined to complete 46.2 percent of their attempts with 17 touchdowns against 23 interceptions — Davis had 16 of each, while Zordich tossed six picks for his one score. Not exactly what Quinn was looking for, to put it lightly. The pair came into spring camp battling for the starting job this fall, and while nothing has been completely decided, Davis has the edge entering the summer. Now a junior, the hope is that last season’s experience and a new outlook on offense leads to a strong showing in 2011.
On paper, the running back combination of sophomore Branden Oliver and junior Jeffvon Gill is a nice one: Oliver’s the speedster and Gill the bruiser, so they would compliment each other well, in principle. Not so in 2010. Buffalo was terrible on the ground, averaging 3.1 yards per carry as a team, rushing for three total scores and not once featuring a 100-yard rusher. Looking for improvement on offense? It all starts in the running game, which is why Quinn constantly preached a more physical, downhill attack during the spring. Like at quarterback, it will be the same cast of characters in the backfield, with Oliver and Gill running neck-and-neck for the lead role. Don’t sleep on redshirt freshman James Potts, however: he was a highly-touted recruit for Buffalo, and will get his carries come the fall.
The Bulls don’t lack for targets in the passing game. All four players with double-digit receptions in 2010 are back this fall, led by leading receiver Marcus Rivers, a senior. He paced the way with 50 receptions for 690 yards, tying fellow senior Ed Young for the team lead with five touchdowns. A third senior, Terrel Jackson, finished second on the team in receptions (43) and yards (497) while earning first-team all-conference honors in the return game; he averaged 16.7 yards per punt return, which ranked among the nation’s best. Rivers and Jackson will start, along with sophomore Alex Neutz (26 for 414 yards), while Young, who made the most of his chances — one touchdown grab for every five catches — provides depth. The Bulls have receivers who can make plays; they just need a quarterback who can get them the ball.
Excuses are excuses, but Buffalo’s offensive line can be excused for last season’s horrible showing, much of which was caused by a slew of injuries. It probably started when Matt Ostrowski broke his leg in September; that led to some shuffling up front, which was further damaged when a handful of other linemen went down to injury. Ostrowski’s back now, though not yet really ready for action. That leaves only one other senior, Chris Violante, back in the starting lineup — and he’s tied up with Jasen Carlson, a sophomore, for the starting spot at center. The real story up front is the arrival of several new faces, two of whom, spring additions Dillon Guy and Gabriel Barbe, have a very strong shot at starting roles. In fact, despite being a freshman Guy has already claimed top honors at left guard, which speaks in part to his talent, in part to Buffalo’s lack of depth and talent returning up front. A strong line would mean a stronger running game, which in part would mean better quarterback play. I’m not altogether confident that the line will see a night-and-day improvement, but the group should be stronger, not to mention deeper.
The defense places an emphasis on linebacker play, being a 3-4 and all, so that the Bulls must replace both inside linebackers — leading tacklers Justin Winters and Raphael Akobundu — is a bit troubling. Helping matters is a healthy Scott Pettigrew, who had 55 tackles in 2009 but missed all of last season with an A.C.L. tear. He’ll inhabit one inside spot. Senior Fred Branch has his own injury issues to overcome — injuries of the chronic variety — but is right alongside John Syty and redshirt freshman Lee Skinner in the competition to start next to Pettigrew. The good news is that Buffalo looks terrific on the outside.
More injury concerns? At least a bit: junior Jaleel Verser was just coming into his own last October when an ankle injury cut his season short. If he’s able to stay injury-free, Verser will team with sophomore Khalil Mack, a rising star, to form one of the MAC’s best outside linebacker duos. Mack was a very pleasant surprise last fall — one of Buffalo’s few nice surprises — as a first-year contributor, finishing third on the team in tackles (68), leading the team in tackles for loss (14.5) and tying for the team lead in sacks (4.5). Syty’s ability to play both inside and outside will help here, as he can backup at both sides if he loses the starting job to Branch. From top to bottom, linebacker is the strength of the defense.
The defensive line lost two senior starters, but the group’s best defender returns: that’s junior end Steven Means, who’s already a two-year starter — not to mention the only linemen who will force opposing offenses to plan around his ability to get to the quarterback. No, his 9.5 sacks through two seasons doesn’t sound like much, but consider the fact that he’s playing end in a 3-4 system; maintaining your gap, standing up against the run, is far more valued than getting to the passer. Means does both well, leading all linemen in tackles last fall (50, 8.5 for loss) while tying Mack for the team lead in sacks.
Promoting senior Richie Smith at nose guard is a no-brainer. He’s not only the best fit at that spot physically, but Smith is the only interior lineman with proper game experience. His primary understudy, Dalton Barksdale, is an intriguing prospect: his older brother was a star at L.S.U., so you know he has good bloodlines. Senior Gordon DuBois will start opposite Means at end, with sophomore Colby Way as his backup, and JUCO transfer Wyatt Cahill could contribute both inside and outside.
Position battle(s) to watch
Secondary Did any team in the country lose as much in the secondary? Take a glance at the carnage: two all-conference safeties in Davonte Shannon and Domonic Cook, with Shannon ranking as one of the MAC’s best at the position over the last three years; a three-year starter at cornerback in Josh Thomas; and senior starter Sherrod Lott, who doubled as Bulls’ nickel back as an underclassman. So the losses are extremely substantial, and leave me doubtful that the Bulls can come close to duplicating last season’s strong play against the pass. And that’s not good news: as noted, the Bulls took a step back last fall in defending the run. Worse news: Buffalo has no sure thing in the secondary, only unproven — albeit talented — options. One such option is sophomore safety Okoye Houston, who should step into a starting role after playing well in a reserve role last fall. He’s the youngest of the quartet battling for starts at safety, joining senior Alan Hayes and juniors Ray Anthony Long and Isaac Baugh. Houston’s versatility will be a bonus, as he can play both strong and free safety; for now, however, he’s running behind Baugh and free safety Josh Copeland, a converted linebacker. As with Houston, Copeland’s versatility is intriguing. One corner spot is tied down by former Cincinnati transfer Romel Dismuke, who played under Quinn when he was assisting Brian Kelly. Sophomore Carlos Lemmons was thought to be the favorite to start on the other side, but redshirt freshman Cortney Lester leapt up the depth chart with a solid spring. There’s talent here, but there’s no way to predict just how well the new-look backfield will fare. As of now, it’s a question mark and a concern.
Game(s) to watch
The potential is there for a nice finish. The final month is far from imposing, with road dates against Miami (Ohio) and Eastern Michigan and home games against Akron and Bowling Green.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Credit Jeff Quinn for owning up to an error. In hindsight, he did not inherit the right personnel for a speedy, no-huddle offense. One year later, he’s accepted blame for the decision and set about to make things right, hiring two experienced assistants who can help the offense move towards a more conventional attack. When Buffalo was winning games under Turner Gill, it was with an offense predicated by the running game. That remains a solid place for Quinn’s team to start, especially considering the difficulties with which the offense moved the ball through the air in 2010. So that’s good news — to me, at least, even if the change might mean another year of struggles before the light turns on. Big picture: Quinn’s still a good fit in Buffalo, 2-10 or no, and even if it takes him another year — or another two years — I’m convinced he has a blueprint. It won’t be easy. It will take time. But as his predecessor proved, it is possible to win at Buffalo. Is it possible to win big? Probably not. But while these Bulls will take their lumps, develop some young, identify depth and so on, there’s reason for optimism. Little picture: this isn’t a great team, or even a very good one, to be honest. There are questions marks all over the offense, though the changes are for the better, and it’s hard to imagine the defense remaining as stout while replacing eight lost starters. Big picture, little picture. As was the case with Kent State, Buffalo fans are patient enough to wait through another down year if it means better days are ahead. What’s one more losing season?
Dream season The Bulls are back, though not quite all the way to the top of the MAC: 7-5, 6-2 in conference play.
Nightmare season Another two-win season isn’t the worst thing in the world, I swear.
In case you were wondering
Where do Buffalo fans congregate? Begin with UBFan.com, which is a terrific option when looking for Buffalo football chatter. You can also check out Buffalo Insiders, though that Scout-run site doesn’t have half the action of the fan-run UBFan.com. For a blog’s take, look no further than UB Bull Run.
Through 10 teams 25,973.
Who is No. 110? The second chancellor at tomorrow’s university loved flowers, particularly the one whose name in Greek means “rainbow.”
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Buffalo, Jeff Quinn, Jerry Davis, Khalil Mack, MAC, Okoye Houston, Steven Means
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