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THE GAME OFF THE FIELD: BUFFALO VS. OLD DOMINION
ODU and UB play football on Saturday. They're already fighting a Mid-Atlantic recruiting war.
Image from UBBulls.com
The Buffalo Bulls head to Norfolk, Virginia this Saturday to play Conference USA opponent Old Dominion University in a final tuneup before MAC play begins.
The game itself is only part of the bigger story.
Wins & Losses
The Monarchs are 1-2 after a win over FCS Hampton and losses to a tough Wake Forest team and a Liberty squad ranked #27 in the country by the Associated Press.
Old Dominion lost its two games to Power 5 programs by a combined score of 87-27, and the Monarchs are ranked 121st in the country in ESPN’s College Football Power Index (UB, by comparison, is 76th).
Buffalo’s a 12-point favorite headed into this game after significantly more competitive losses to better teams—Nebraska and #17 Coastal Carolina.
Norfolk’s Norview High School product and current Bulls’ star RB Kevin Marks, Jr. 's homecoming will likely be a storyline for what may not be a particularly competitive game.
Both Marks and schoolmate Isaiah King, now a veteran member of the UB secondary, committed to Buffalo in 2016.
Marks’ cousin, freshman UB receiver Khamron Laborn, also hails from Norfolk. Tough linebacker Kadofi Wright comes from Richmond, just up I-64. They’ll be good for family-and-friends copy, too.
Forget all that.
The real competition between these two schools is off the field. That competition is just getting started, and it's already fierce.
Recruiting Wars: Harvesting the Mid-Atlantic
SI.com wrote a story about Linguist, the Bulls’ first-year head coach, and his near-legendary recruiting skills earlier this year—back before Lance Leipold bolted Buffalo for Kansas and Linguist was still a new Jim Harbaugh hire at Michigan, not UB.
“There are five new coaches on Michigan’s staff ahead of the 2021 season,” the site proclaimed, “including co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Maurice Linguist, who is already earning his paycheck.”
In his first 26 days on the job, writer Brandon Brown noted, Linguist landed the Wolverines three recruits and was actively working with several others.
Prospects raved about Linguist’s style—energetic, knowledgeable, passionate, and honest. Willing to do the work to help kids achieve their goals on the field and in the classroom.
Enter Ricky Rahne.
Rahne, an acolyte of Penn State Head Coach James Franklin and most recently the Nittany Lions’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was hired to lead Old Dominion in late 2019.
One major selling point for ODU were Rahne’s recruiting ties to the DMV—Washington, D.C., the Beltway section of Maryland, and Northern Virginia.
Rahne, in turn, was willing to give up a plum job at a prime program because he understood these Monarchs - who’ve only had FBS football since 2014 and banked one winning season in those eight years -are sitting on a potential gold mine.
When Ricky Rahne took over the Old Dominion football program in December, he was aware that there was plenty of talent in his extended backyard. It’s one of the main reasons he took the top job...Since his early days of coaching, starting at Holy Cross and ascending most recently to offensive coordinator at Penn State, he has courted and followed the parade of prospects coming out of the D.C. area.
Getting a handle on all the talent in D.C., Maryland and Virginia requires rigorous scouting, so the 40-year-old assigned four members of his coaching staff, the youngest in the nation, to cover the area.
“I knew that if you try to have one guy in charge of the entire DMV area, that’s not going to work,” Rahne said. “That’s not going to do it.”
In his nine months at the helm, Rahne has pitched recruits on the idea of staying close to home and representing an area they care about. And he has been particularly aggressive in D.C., roughly 200 miles from the Norfolk campus.
A quick scan of ODU’s roster shows 60 current players were pulled from Maryland, Virginia, or Washington, D.C.
Twenty-eight of those players came from the DMV proper.
A significant number of the remaining 32 athletes played their high school ball in the Baltimore, Richmond, and Hampton Roads areas—all well-known for football talent.
Who Cares? You Should, UB Fans
A guy with a history of Mid-Atlantic recruiting arrives at a state school in Virginia and starts heavily fishing in the local talent pool. Well, duh.
No big deal, right?
Wrong. It’s a very big deal.
Buffalo has 14 players on its current roster from Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland, including 10 (by my unofficial count) from the DMV specifically.
Senior LB and beating-heart-of-the-defense James Patterson?
He’s from Glendale, Maryland. That’s in Prince George’s County, which wraps around Washington, D.C. and is a massive source of national athletic talent (for example, a fellow from PGC’s Fort Washington named Kevin Durant plays a little basketball).
You may also remember James’ brother, Jaret, who set a record or two during his days in UB’s backfield. He now plays in the NFL—for the Washington Football Team, appropriately enough.
Buffalo RB Ron Cook, Jr., who tallied 113 total yards in Saturday’s 28-25 loss to Coastal Carolina, is from Washington, D.C.
Logic Hudgens, the sophomore CB who kept Buffalo in that game with a fourth-quarter end zone interception, is from nearby Severn, Md.
Sophomore DT and emerging wrecking ball George Wolo is from Columbia, Md., a 30-mile jaunt from the capital.
Senior safety Dylan Powell is from Bowie, Md.
Freshmen CB Demarco Cuffey and OL Janik Ogunlade are from Waldorf, Md.
Freshman Brian Plummer is a three-star, dual-threat QB from Gaithersburg, Md. who was offered a scholarship by the University of Maryland. He turned the Terrapins down.
He also turned down ODU.
Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?
It’s no secret that the DMV, or Virginia and Maryland in general, are recruiting hotbeds.
Maryland, as Andy Wittry wrote in an awesome Substack about the 20-year evolution of college football recruiting hubs, is a symbol of the Mid-Atlantic’s rise in football talent at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest:
Maryland has undergone a transformation as a sneaky, yet relative, college football recruiting hotbed. The Old Line State had just one top-100 recruit in the 2000, 2001 and 2002 recruiting classes combined, and in five of the first 16 years of this century, Maryland didn’t have a single high school player ranked among the top 100 recruits.
However, from the 2021 recruiting class dating back to the 2016 class, Maryland has produced four, five, three, five, three and five top-100 recruits, respectively, which is all the more impressive when you consider that it was just the 19th-largest state in the country last year, according to the United States Census Bureau’s population estimate as of July 1, 2019.
Plus, there were three other top-100 recruits from Washington, D.C. in the 2020 recruiting class, after the U.S. capital was responsible for just two top-100 recruits from 2000 through 2004.
As the maps of the hometowns of the top 100 recruits in the 2000 and 2020 recruiting classes showed, Maryland has arguably taken New Jersey’s claim as the No. 1 recruiting hotbed for elite college football recruits on the East Coast. From 2017 to 2021, New Jersey was responsible for just 10 top-100 recruits – half of Maryland’s total.
“The last 5-6 years, the DMV has been coming on very strong,” recruiting expert Zack Poff told MaxPreps’ Mitch Stephens in 2020. “The No. 31 team in Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.) features the nation's No. 1 quarterback recruit from the Class of 2021 in Caleb Williams (now an Oklahoma freshman). It's been pretty insane."
So yeah, the word is out—but it’s not like recruiting stopped in Florida, Georgia, or Texas because the big schools have the top line on the five-star talent.
Buffalo’s not competing for four- and five-star kids, anyway. Barring a miracle entry into a significantly more prestigious conference coupled with long-term, high-profile success (or some good fortune in the transfer portal), the Bulls are in a long-term fight for the talent in the middle of the curve, not the outrageous outliers.
That’s what makes ODU even more dangerous.
Buffalo needs to sweep up as many three-stars as possible. The competition is even more fierce because UB and its peers can’t make recruiting mistakes or lose a transfer the way, say, Ohio State can: the pieces all need to fit, or jobs are lost.
Plus, recruiting is expensive. While Buffalo’s made significant investments in football over the years, the money is far from unlimited.
The Mid-Atlantic is much more cost-effective to recruit (you can fly to four different airports between Baltimore and Richmond in about an hour for a couple hundred bucks and then quickly drive almost anywhere from North Carolina to Pennsylvania), especially compared to multiple trips back and forth to distant locales across the Deep South.
It’s better for the kids, too, who are able to maintain a degree of closeness with their family and homes. Mom’s cooking, the washing machine, and old friends are still just a road trip away.
Frankly, UB needs the region. The school outperformed its recruiting profile over the past several seasons—the Bulls scored dead last in the MAC based on 247Sports.com’s recruiting formula in 2018 and 2020—another important reason to have a recruiting savant like Linguist at the helm.
Building a Culture (And Sweeping the Floors)
Coincidentally, perhaps, Linguist spent a good amount of time talking about the development of his team’s culture at his Tuesday presser.
When asked about Marks’ return to Norfolk, for example, he quickly pivoted.
“It’s always exciting when you can go home, but I hope our fire, desire, motivation, drive, and obsession with winning—our obsession with doing things right—comes from within our four walls,” Linguist said. “We want you to play extremely well because that’s who you are. That’s what the culture demands. That’s what the expectation is for you and yourself.
“Kevin Marks is a tremendous young man. He’s doing a great job. I think when you can go home and play in front of family, it’s always a plus—but we want to take that attitude wherever we are, and not just because we’re going home...we play better because that’s what our culture demands.”
While aptly named (he can ride the cliche train with the most experienced of coaches), Linguist’s conversation with reporters did illuminate his own focus on perfection—down to the locker room floor.
“(Our culture) starts with how we do every single thing,” he said. “Our (team) meeting this morning was about making sure our locker room was exactly the way it needs to look. Making sure that we’re going to class on time and sitting in the first two rows. Making sure that we sweep the hallways and pick up any small things in our facility. ...We just continue to focus on the details of how we handle ourselves every single day.”
As a man who vacuums twice a day, I respect this kind of talk.
Hard Work Starts At Home (But Can’t Stay There)
Linguist was also asked about the development of junior RB Dylan McDuffie, whom he previously called by name as one of several players who showed the kind of accountability needed for a strong team culture.
McDuffie, a former star at Sweet Home High School in nearby Amherst, had 92 rushing yards and a touchdown against Coastal Carolina.
“I saw him work his butt off all summer,” Linguist said. “You watched how he worked throughout June and July, he was off the charts. Front of the line, took every single rep, strained to finish. I was just so impressed with how he worked...I told him this, and I told the team this: I am not surprised by the performance that he had. That’s why he’s in the game.”
Dylan McDuffie went to high school a half-mile from UB’s North Campus. Buffalo didn’t need to go far to find him.
The Bulls had to go out looking for the Patterson brothers. Kevin Marks. Kadofi Wright.
Ricky Rahne is now hunting in the same fertile Baltimore-to-Hampton Roads grounds that has arguably produced the core of the Bulls’ team. He’s sending multiple recruiters into those territories. He’s dedicated to owning his backyard.
Ricky Rahne is a problem.
Here Comes the Rahne
Rahne pulled five Power 5 players from the transfer portal this winter, including Norfolk native and former University of Central Florida QB D.J. Mack, Jr. (like Marks and King, a Norview grad) and Tyran Hunt, a massive Courtland, Virginia O-lineman who returned to the Norfolk region after playing two seasons for Maryland.
The bunch Rahne signed in December 2020—this year’s freshmen—was hailed as the best recruiting class in ODU history. The group included 11 players from Virginia and Maryland.
“Five players turned down offers from Power 5 schools, including Syracuse, Pitt, Maryland, Duke, Arizona State, and North Carolina to sign with the Monarchs, and that's always a good sign,” ODUsports.com’s Harry Minium reported.
Here’s the scarier part:
“Most of the rest of the recruits turned down ODU's peers, including schools such as Appalachian State, Liberty, Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Buffalo, Army, North Texas, and Florida International.”
One of those recruits was Ethan Vasko, a three-star QB and a Virginia high school state champion. Vasko’s from Chesapeake, just outside Norfolk.
UB also offered Vasko. He chose to stay home.
“First off I would like to thank my family for always being there for me and supporting me through this process. I would also like to thank my coaches for pushing me to be the best of my abilities! I also want to thank the coaches who have recruited me throughout the process,” Vasko tweeted, tagging @RickyRahne when he signed on as a Monarch. "With that being said I am 100% COMMITTED TO OLD DOMINION UNIVERSITY!”
Is This The End of Buffalo Football?
Of course not. In fact, the appearance of dynamic figures like Linguist and Rahne on the scene are all the more reason to be excited about Group of 5 college football. And Linguist doesn’t have a single Bulls recruiting class under his belt yet.
It’s not like the pressure ever turns off in this sport—Linguist, and the UB administration, certainly know the deal. Rahne won’t be the first or last hound to come sniffing around Buffalo’s territory.
It’s just a reminder the complications never stop.
It’s a reminder a handful of strong seasons do not mean the Buffalo program is firmly established forever.
It’s a reminder prospects, recruits, transfers, nationally televised games, top-25 rankings, and annual bowl visits can be fleeting.
In this game, the wolves are always—always—at the door.
And from the perspective of Saturday—it’s a reminder there’s a lot more at stake when the Bulls face Old Dominion than one more win in September 2021.
Taylor Riggins, Demolition Man
Bulls DE Taylor Riggins won the MAC East Defensive Player of the Week Award for his performance against Coastal Carolina which was, honestly, a little frightening.
University at Buffalo defensive end Taylor Riggins has been named the MAC East Division Defensive Player of the Week, the league announced on Monday.
Riggins had his way with 16th-ranked Coastal Carolina on Saturday, tying a career-high with seven tackles (all solo), two sacks, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Both of his sacks came in the second quarter and helped the Bulls head to halftime tied with the Chanticleers, 14-14.
After missing last season with an injury, Riggins has returned with a vengeance. The Webster, NY native has 17 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles through three games this season.
It marks the second time this season UB has had a player earn Player of the Week honors. Quarterback Kyle Vantrease took home the award following the Bulls' win over Wagner.
Congratulations, Taylor. Still want to call him Tim every time.
Vax Requirement in Effect For Buffalo’s October Opener
UB’s next home game is its MAC opener against Western Michigan on Oct. 2—and if you’re planning to be in the stands, you’ll need proof you’ve received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Again, from UBBulls.com:
The University at Buffalo will require proof that spectators are vaccinated against COVID-19 to be allowed into football games at UB Stadium and men's and women's basketball games at Alumni Arena.
The new rule takes effect in October and also applies to those planning on attending public cultural events at Slee Hall, the Center for the Arts and Alumni Arena, including the Distinguished Speakers Series and the commencement celebration honoring the Class of 2020 on Oct. 1.
"We feel this is in the community's best interest," said Michael E. Cain, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "COVID-19 cases in the region have continued to climb. We want to be proactive and make sure we are doing our part to prevent further spread of the virus."
Masks will no longer be required. Get your shots, everyone!