Buffalo's lead Bull this season is Branden Oliver, one of the MAC's premier running backs.
By: Athlon Sports | 5/5/12, 12:00 PM EDT
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MAC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Jeff Quinn, 5-19 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Alex Wood | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lou Tepper
Considering how pedestrian Buffalo’s run game was in 2010, the Bulls made a remarkable recovery in ’11, improving by over 40 rushing yards per game. Now, the ground attack is the unit’s strength. Junior tailback Branden Oliver is already receiving long looks from NFL scouts after a sophomore season in which he established single-season school records in rushing attempts (306), yards (1,395), 100-yard rushing games (eight) and all-purpose yardage (1,760). Buffalo needs Oliver to produce similar results until the team’s passing game ripens.
Third-year coach Jeff Quinn will start his third different quarterback and will choose between junior Alex Zordich and redshirt freshman Joe Licata. A local product from Williamsville, N.Y., Licata turned down an offer from Syracuse to stay home. Zordich started four games as a true freshman in 2010 and served as Chazz Anderson’s backup in ’11. Both performed well during spring practice, and Quinn won’t decide on his starter until the week before the Bulls’ season-opener at Georgia.
The offensive line returns four starters, but the receiving corps has to be largely rebuilt. Junior Alex Neutz, who missed three games last season because of injury, is the leading returning receiver and has big-play ability. Neutz finished with 43 receptions last year, but no other wideout on the roster had more than 20.
Quinn hired veteran Lou Tepper as his defensive coordinator after William Inge left for a coaching position with the Buffalo Bills. Tepper, the head coach at Illinois in the early 1990s, has plenty to work with, starting with junior linebacker Khalil Mack, a first-team All-MAC performer. Mack is one of three returning starters in the linebacking corps, along with sophomore Lee Skinner and senior Jaleel Verser.
Defensive end Steven Means is coming off a disappointing junior year in which he recorded only 2.5 sacks, but he bulked up to 260 pounds and hopes to enjoy a breakout senior season. Junior end Colby Way is solid on the other side.
The secondary took its lumps in ’11, but three of four starters return — senior Isaac Baugh, junior Najja Johnson and sophomore Cortney Lester, a converted wide receiver.
Quinn was still evaluating the roles of punter and punt returner, the team’s most glaring areas to fill, at the end of spring drills. Placekicker Patrick Clarke handled the punt duties, but the job will likely go to incoming freshman Tyler Grassman come training camp. The leading returner is Brandon Murie, who is also the backup tailback.
A 5–19 record over the last two years is not what the Buffalo faithful expected after hiring Quinn away from Cincinnati three years ago. The program’s biggest adjustment has been on offense, where players haven’t fully taken to Quinn’s pass-heavy spread. While Oliver is one of the MAC’s premier tailbacks, Quinn is breaking in another quarterback, a position where results so far have been a mixture of wild inconsistency and occasional doses of promise.
Defensively, Mack could emerge as the conference’s best player, and there’s enough talent to keep Buffalo competitive until the offense grows. Nevertheless, this is a critical year for Quinn. Warde Manuel, the man who hired Quinn, is now the athletic director at Connecticut, and the new AD (Danny White) probably won’t be enamored with five wins over two seasons. It doesn’t help that the schedule is more challenging than it was last season.