Buffalo Bulls 2016 Preview and Prediction
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#113 Buffalo Bulls
MAC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Lance Leipold, 5-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Andy Kotelnicki | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian Borland
Buffalo didn't go to a bowl game last season, but Lance Leipold's first season as an FBS head coach can still be labeled a success as the Bulls went 5-7 and lost several one-score games. The foundation for sustained success has been laid, but 2016 will rely heavily on the success of an inexperienced offense.
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Previewing Buffalo’s Offense for 2016
The Bulls aren’t merely breaking in a new quarterback. The entire unit is undergoing a dramatic change under second-year coach Lance Leipold. The competition to replace four-year starter Joe Licata, who owns nearly every passing record in school history, will be a two-way battle between redshirt freshmen Tyree Jackson and Chris Merchant. Both Jackson and Merchant were solid during the spring as they learned the intricacies of the offense.
Leipold still plans to rely on the running game, perhaps moreso considering that the quarterback will likely go through growing pains. Senior Jordan Johnson rushed for 811 yards and 12 touchdowns last season as the backup to All-MAC tailback Anthone Taylor. The former high school quarterback is a punishing runner who can reach the second level of the defense in a hiccup. Taylor’s power is complemented by the speed of sophomore Johnathan Hawkins, who showed flashes as a true freshman and will also handle some kick return duties.
Quality depth along the line and at wide receiver is an area of concern. Center James O’Hagan is the only returning offensive lineman to start every game. Brandon Manosalvas started 10 games — six at right guard and four at left guard — while Roubbens Joseph started four games at right guard. After those three, it’s slim pickings on the line in terms of experience.
Tight end Matt Weiser and wideout Ron Willoughby, who combined for 125 receptions for 1,438 yards and nine touchdowns last season, must be replaced. The leading returning receiver is Marcus McGill (50 catches in 2015), but the receiving corps suffered a blow when Collin Lisa (31 catches for 325 yards and two touchdowns) transferred back to UAB in May.
Previewing Buffalo’s Defense for 2016
The Bulls made considerable strides under coordinator Brian Borland in spring practice. But will that carry over to the season? The defense was more aggressive and physical in the spring due in part to new additions and schematic adjustments. Like last season, the secondary should be a strength. Senior corner Boise Ross, arguably the best athlete on the team, ranked eighth in the country in passes defended.
Both starting safeties are back, including Ryan Williamson, who ranked fourth on the team in tackles last season with 83. Andrews Dadeboe started nine games at safety and had 36 tackles and two interceptions. Two starters are gone at linebacker, but the Bulls do return All-MAC selection Brandon Berry, a converted safety.
The defensive line is experienced but needs to be stout against the run and create a consistent pass rush. End Brandon Crawford finished with 34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks. Crawford anchors the line along with 307-pound junior Chris Ford at tackle.
Buffalo is dealing with the tragic loss of linebacker Solomon Jackson, who was hospitalized after a medical emergency during offseason conditioning and died a week later. The Bulls have dedicated their season to the memory of Jackson.
Previewing Buffalo’s Specialists for 2016
Conor Clarke and Kyle Deween, a pair of junior-college transfers, battled for the punting job in the spring, and fellow newcomer Taylor Sheets joins the fray in the fall. Adam Mitcheson was 13-of-19 on field-goal attempts last season.
Leipold, a highly respected Division III coach, is a proven winner and difference-maker, so it’s only a matter of time before Buffalo is back in the hunt for a MAC East title. Since Turner Gill left the program in 2009, the Bulls have challenged for a spot in the league championship game just once (2013). The Bulls’ success in ’15 will hinge on the readiness of the new quarterback and wide receivers, and whether the defense can create a pass rush.