AMHERST — Never before had the University at Buffalo football team won like it did a year ago, 10 times in the regular season by a margin of nearly 20 points per victory, two more than the existing school record win total, triple the average from its first 20 seasons since returning to the Division I ranks, and more than enough to claim the program’s second Mid-American Conference East division title.
Then came a string of losses, starting with Northern Illinois’ comeback in the MAC championship game, followed by a late letdown against Troy in the Dollar General Bowl, and quarterback Tyree Jackson’s announcement that he was entering his name into the NCAA transfer portal.
Jackson, the 2018 MAC offensive player of the year, ultimately decided to declare for the NFL draft, compounding the graduation losses of All-MAC wide receiver Anthony Johnson, center James O’Hagan, linebacker Khalil Hodge, defensive end Chuck Harris and cornerback Cam Lewis. The exodus continued with the transfers of All-MAC receiver K.J. Osborn (Miami) and tight end Tyler Mabry (Maryland), along with promising young wideout Charlie Jones (Iowa).
The collective roster turnover has raised questions about whether UB could uphold the winning standard set last season — and motivated the returning players throughout an offseason that ends tonight at UB Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN+, 1520 AM) when the Bulls open as 48-point favorites against FCS Robert Morris.
“There is a mixture of energy and motivation from this group based on the season not ending the way we wanted it to last year,” said fifth-year coach Lance Leipold, who received a contract extension in February. “I also think they are motivated by the fact that they feel like there has been a lot of conversation more so on who is not here than who is here.”
UB is rebuilding from the ground up, featuring a tailback tag team that combined for 1,858 yards and 27 touchdowns last season: Jaret Patterson, the MAC freshman of the year who is on the watchlist for both the Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award, and sophomore Kevin Marks. Redshirt freshman Dylan McDuffie (Sweet Home) and junior Theo Anderson — who had a 138-yard game late in the 2017 season — will also get chances to run behind an offensive line that returns four starters, including second-team All-MAC left tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk (West Seneca East).
At quarterback, redshirt freshman Matt Myers (West Seneca West) emerged from a preseason competition with sophomores Kyle Vantrease and Dominic Johnson and will become the first freshman to start a UB season opener since Cliff Scott in 1991.
“I’m really excited and I can’t wait,” Myers said. “It’s been a great summer of training, a great fall camp. I think everybody is just ready to strap them up and put on the pads and just play football.”
Myers’ mobility and aptitude with run-pass option plays factored into his winning the starting job, Leipold said, and should mesh well with UB’s experienced offensive line and potential for a run-oriented attack.
Already without their top five targets from a year ago, UB’s most experienced receiver, junior Antonio Nunn, has been battling a leg injury for most of preseason and is doubtful to play in the opener. Tito Overton is the only other receiver on the roster who has caught a pass for the Bulls. The other wideouts on UB’s roster are 6-foot-4 true freshman Marlyn Johnson and three junior college transfers: Daniel Lee, Carlton Todd and Bernard Porter.
“I really like our receiver core,” Leipold said. “Everybody brings something new to the table.”
“Did we get some unexpected things that make us a little less experienced and a little more youthful in spots?” Leipold elaborated. “Yes. But to me that’s exciting because sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know and they just go out there and play hard for you.”
On defense the Bulls bring back just three starters but several players who saw extensive action in reserve roles last year. Coordinator Brian Borland will be able to rotate at all four spots on the defensive line, while the linebackers and secondary are the most athletic groups UB has had in recent seasons, Leipold said.
James Patterson, twin brother of the Bulls’ running back, was a second-team All-MAC pick after producing 77 tackles and four forced fumbles as a true freshman. New middle linebacker Matt Otwinowski has been frequently praised for his intelligence by Leipold.
Defensive end Taylor Riggins was second on the team with five sacks last year despite not starting. Riggins will wear No. 41 for UB’s opener, continuing the tradition of honoring the late Solomon Jackson. Senior pass rusher Ledarius Mack, younger brother of UB legend and NFL star Khalil Mack, is not listed as a starter but is one of the Bulls’ captains, along with Otwinowski, the Patterson twins and junior right tackle Kayode Awosika.
Two years ago, UB won its final three games to finish 6-6, achieving bowl eligibility but no postseason bid. Last year’s 10-4 campaign gave UB consecutive seasons with a .500 record or better for the first time in its Division I era. If the Bulls can win at least six games this year, it will be the first time the program has strung together three seasons without a losing record since a five-year run from 1980-84 at the Division II level. That included one of just two instances of back-to-back winning seasons in program history.
Over the first 20 seasons since returning to D-I and joining the MAC, UB had two winning seasons, winning eight games and receiving a bowl bid in 2008 and 2013. Both of those seasons were followed by five-win campaigns that preceded coaching changes and a multi-year rebuilding process.
Leipold, who win six D-III national championships with five undefeated seasons in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater, has set out to make UB a consistent winner.
“In order to do that, you have to consistently recruit well,” Leipold said. “And more so, evaluate and develop players.”