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UB FOOTBALL: CATCHING UP ON 2021
Ten months of football news in roughly five minutes.
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Welcome to UB in 5, a newsletter for those who want to stay connected to University at Buffalo football and basketball but don’t have time to sift through the internet or the willingness to fight paywalls. Glad you’re here! Let’s go.
WHAT HAPPENED TO BUFFALO FOOTBALL LAST SEASON?
Buffalo didn’t start its 2020 slate until Nov. 4, and then played three games in 13 days. No worries: the Bulls (6-1 overall, 5-1 in the Mid-American Conference) beat MAC rivals Northern Illinois, Miami (Ohio), and Bowling Green by an average score of 44-19. UB followed up these victories by dismantling Kent State, 70-41, and crushing Akron, 56-7, to win the MAC East before falling to Ball State in the conference championship game, 38-28.
The Bulls rebounded to win the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, knocking off Marshall, 17-10. The contest marked Buffalo’s third bowl game in three years and second straight bowl victory, completing a 6-1 campaign and securing the #25 ranking in the final AP Poll of the season—the team’s first-ever top-25 finish.
There were legitimate signs of dominance in 2020. The team’s offense, led by junior RBs Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks, Jr. (pictured above), rushed for 287.4 yards per game, second in the nation, and averaged 43.5 points—fifth overall.
QB Kyle Vantrease and WR Antonio Nunn led an efficient aerial assault that delivered 191 yards per game, helping to place the Bulls’ overall offensive attack among the top 20 in the country.
The defense, also solid, ranked 35th in Division 1, with a major contribution from 1st-Team All-MAC DE Malcolm Koonce and LB James Patterson. Former 1st Team All-MAC DE Taylor Riggins missed 2020 with an injury, but is expected back this fall.
LAST YEAR’S BULLS, THIS YEAR’S NFL ROOKIES
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Kayode Awosika, OG (Philadelphia). NFL prospect grade: 5.68. NFL analyst Lance Zierlein’s notes: “Three-year starter at tackle who will likely make the move inside to guard as a pro. ...Improving body control and learning to widen out will be the keys for him making it as a backup guard in a power-based run scheme.”
Malcolm Koonce, DE (Las Vegas). NFL prospect grade: 6.1. NFL analyst Lance Zierlein’s notes: “His approach as an edge rusher is basic and predictable, but he plays with instinctive feet and tempo changes, which could be crafted into a more dangerous attack in time. The step up in competition will be a challenge, but he has a future in the NFL as a 3-4 outside linebacker.”
Antonio Nunn, WR (Atlanta). NFL prospect grade: 5.58. NFL analyst Lance Zierlein’s notes: “Jump-ball specialist with the tracking and ball skills to bring in the catch in one-on-one battles in space. Nunn has good size and acceleration, which he uses effectively when working down the field.”
Jaret Patterson, RB (Washington). NFL prospect grade: 5.98. NFL analyst Lance Zierlein’s notes: “Good luck knocking this bowling ball of balance and power off his feet with a single blow. If you love production and competitiveness, Patterson is your guy. ...He lacks pass-catching production but his courage and technique in protection was eye-opening. Some of the gargantuan production came against weaker defenses, but ‘hard to tackle’ is a translatable trade and could make him a three-down backup.”
TALENT IN, TALENT OUT OF BUFFALO
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You’ve probably heard the bad news. Lance Leipold (pictured above), the head coach responsible for the greatest six-season run in the history of the program, left Buffalo to take the same job at longtime Big 12 doormat Kansas.
Eighteen Bulls subsequently entered the transfer portal. The Bulls lost OL Mike Novitsky and Michael Ford, Jr., WR Trevor Wilson-Solomon, LB Rich Miller, and DL Eddie Wilson (all three-star recruits and, in the case of Novitsky and Wilson, 1st and 3rd Team All-MAC talents, respectively) to Leipold and the Jayhawks.
A pair of defensive linemen—Ronald McGee and Virginia Tech transfer Zion Debose—will also join Leipold in Lawrence.
Third-team All-MAC OL Jacob Gall bounced for Baylor.
Tyrone Hill, expected to be a sixth-year returnee in the defensive secondary, chose to transfer to Washington State.
On the plus side, Buffalo added three-star Texas A&M DT Josh Rogers, formerly the 5th-ranked high school defensive lineman in Texas. The Bulls also added Eastern Michigan WR Quian Willaims, who had 76 catches for 983 yards and eight touchdowns in two seasons for the Eagles.
As for the frosh: Phil Steele notes that 15 of Buffalo’s incoming freshmen are ranked three stars or higher.
GET TO KNOW MO: INTRODUCING BULLS HEAD COACH MAURICE LINGUIST
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Leipold casts a long shadow in Buffalo. Prior to Leipold, the Bulls posted two winning seasons in the 21st century. He’s the most accomplished football coach in UB history, and the fact that he left with a good-not-great 37-33 record over six seasons underscores just how troubled that history has been.
New head coach Maurice Linguist will be expected to build on Leipold’s foundation, and will do so with a team riddled with defections.
Oh, and he’s never run his own program before.
What do we know about Coach Mo?
Linguist is a star on the rise. He spent 2020 as cornerbacks coach for the Dallas Cowboys (ignore the fact that the 2020 Cowboys’ defense was one of the worst in franchise history) and landed a job as co-defensive coordinator at Michigan in January. He relinquished the role four months later when the Buffalo job opened, but not before he helped Jim Harbaugh and company land a handful of well-regarded recruits.
Back to Buffalo:
He’s been a traveling expert on secondary play, bouncing from Iowa State (2014-15) to Mississippi State (2016) to Minnesota (2017) to Texas A&M (2018-19). He also coached DBs for—that’s right—the Bulls in 2012 and 2013, the latter being one of the two respectable seasons delivered by UB before Leipold came along.
Linguist is considered a top-notch recruiter. “Texas A&M had top-six recruiting classes in 2019 and 2020, and Linguist was the lead recruiter for five-star safety Jaylon Jones, who signed with Texas A&M in December 2019,” writes Rachel Lenzi of The Buffalo News. “Linguist helped Minnesota recruit Rashod Bateman in 2017; Bateman was the Big Ten’s wide receiver of the year in 2019 and a first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens (this spring).”
Adds Austin Meek of The Athletic: “Linguist spent less than four months at Michigan, but in that short time he established himself as one of the best recruiters on Michigan's staff, helping the Wolverines land a commitment from five-star cornerback Will Johnson for the 2022 class. Players talked about connecting with him in the spring and praised the NFL knowledge he brought after coaching with the Dallas Cowboys in 2020.”
A man of the times:
Linguist is young, smart, and clearly connects with young players. This does not seem like the fall-off-the-cliff scenario that Buffalo experienced after the 2009 season, which led to one winning campaign over four years and a midseason firing for crusty Brian Kelly acolyte Jeff Quinn. While clearly cast in the role of underdog, Linguist and the Bulls are expected to be dark horse competitors for the MAC title in 2021.
BULLS NUMBERS TO KNOW
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Since 2017, UB has won more games (32) than any team in the MAC.
Buffalo covered the spread in five of seven games in 2020, despite being double-digit favorites four times.
Buffalo allowed just one sack last year. Unfortunately, only two starters—fifth-year seniors LT Jake Fuzak and RG Jack Klenk—return on the o-line.
One—the number of losses Nebraska, the Bulls’ Week Two opponent, has to MAC competition. Northern Illinois knocked off the Cornhuskers, 21-17, on Sept. 16, 2017, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
90.1—the pass rush grade given the DE Taylor Riggins (pictured above) in 2019 by Pro Football Focus. It placed him in the company of then-college linemen A.J. Epenesa and Bradley Anae, both of whom are now in the NFL.
WHAT THE EXPERTS EXPECT FROM BUFFALO IN 2021
Athlon Sports: #3 in the MAC. “Buffalo is one of the hardest teams to figure out this preseason. This program was slated to be the team to beat in the MAC prior to coach Lance Leipold’s decision to depart for Kansas. New coach Maurice Linguist is a solid hire, but a late transition and some roster departures have added uncertainty for 2021.”
Yahoo Sports: Yahoo predicts the Bulls will go 6-6 overall and 4-4 in conference to finish 4th in the MAC East (with Ohio, Kent State, and Miami tying for first).
Phil Steele: Third in the MAC power rankings. “I was going to call for a repeat as MAC East champs. (But) they have brand new coaches, new schemes, and a lot of departures, when most every school has the majority of players back. They may have a tough time topping last year’s 6 win total in a 7 game season.”
MAC Preseason Media Poll: Fourth in the East Division. “It’s OK, you know, because it’s their opinion,” James Patterson told The Buffalo News. “I’m going to have to respect it, but at the same time, I’m going to have to prove them wrong. As a collective (defensive) unit, I’m really going to have to stress, ‘OK, they picked us fourth, but they don’t really believe in what we have and what we’re doing.’ When it’s time for them to see what’s going on, that’s when we’ll shock the world.”
IMPACT BUFFALO BULLS: REMEMBER THESE NAMES
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Kevin Marks, Jr., RB (Sr.)—With the loss of Jaret Patterson (1,072 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2020) to the NFL, Marks will be the bell cow. Marks thought about transferring, but decided to stay put—a huge win for Buffalo. Kevin ran for 741 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games in 2020. He’s on watch lists for the Maxwell Award (most outstanding player in college football) and the Doak Walker Award (top RB in college football).
Kyle Vantrease, QB (Sr.)—Vantrease threw for 1,326 yards and seven touchdowns (four in a win over Miami) along with three INTs in 2020. A consummate game manager, Vantrease—who doubled as the team’s punter in 2019—didn’t turn the ball over, take sacks, or make many bad decisions. With three new starters on the offensive line, and the loss of critical safety nets in Patterson and WR Antonio Nunn, the veteran will be asked—nay, required—to make plays this season.
Shane Montgomery, OC—The Bulls’ new offensive coordinator comes directly from FCS powerhouse James Madison University but has a resume that stretches across the midwest, including eight years as an OC and four years as head coach at MAC rival Miami—where he worked closely with a big kid named Roethlisberger. Other stops have included stints at Akron, Youngstown State, and UNC-Charlotte. A former star QB at North Carolina State, Montgomery’s most recent work at JMU was characterized by an elite level of efficiency in the passing game and powerful rushing attacks. That’s a philosophy that should fit right in at UB.
James Patterson, MLB (Sr.)—He’s Jaret Patterson’s fraternal twin, and unlike his brother, James (pictured above)—a 1st Team All-MAC LB—came back for his senior season. He’s on the Butkus Award (top LB in college football) and Bednarik Award (best defensive player) watch lists. A team captain since his sophomore season, Patterson led UB with 63 tackles in 2020. He should be the beating heart of this defense.
Taylor Riggins, DE (Sr.)—The 2017 transfer from UMass and Webster, N.Y. native missed 2020 with a lower-body injury. Prolific edge rusher Malcolm Koonce is off to the NFL, and Riggins is sorely needed to return to the form that made him a 1st Team All-MAC selection in 2019 when he posted 48 tackles and 8.5 sacks in 13 starts.