UB Bulls football preview

August 26, 2018 - 11:44 am
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The 2017 Buffalo Bulls football season ended in disappointment, and possibly a bit of anger after a 6-6 finish. While the Bulls ended the year on a three-game win streak and earned bowl eligibility, they were one of three teams to not receive a bowl game bid. The University of Texas San Antonio and Western Michigan were the other two teams snubbed of a bowl bid.

For a program that has only played in two bowl games since moving to Division 1-A in 1999, missing out on a third was obviously a let down. Buffalo’s two seasons where they played in a bowl game have also been their only winning seasons since ’99.

Despite the underwhelming end to last year, there is a lot of hype surrounding the 2018 squad.

Buffalo is returning 14 starters (eight on offense) and has six players on nine different preseason watch lists.

“It’s nice that people are taking notice of our program,” said Bulls head coach Lance Liepold, entering his fourth season with UB since coming from D-III powerhouse Wisconsin-Whitewater. “That wasn’t necessarily the case the last few years.”

Part of the reason the Bulls haven’t received coverage in the past was due to the fact that they weren’t winning games. However, with a trio of players with potential to be drafted to the NFL, Buffalo are expected to win quite a few more games this fall.

The aforementioned trio is junior quarterback Tyree Jackson, senior linebacker Khalil Hodge and senior wide receiver Anthony Johnson, all three turned in stellar performances in 2017 and have received a number of preseason honors. All three were also listed in the Sports Illustrated top 100 college football players  and CBS Sports top 100 NFL Draft prospects for 2019.

Johnson finished first in the MAC and second in the nation in receiving yards per-game (113), recording 76 catches for 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns, a UB program record. Johnson was named an AP Preseason All-American earlier this week and is seen by some as “one of the best receivers in college football.”

“He does a great job being a leader in the receiver room as well,” quarterback Tyree Jackson said of his top target. “Guys come out and see him, younger players see him and they know that’s the standard and everyone is trying to reach that bar and exceed it.”

Jackson, despite missing a third of last season due to injury, put up 2,096 passing yards and 12 touchdowns, along with four rushing scores.

“It’s important for all of us that we get 12 games from Tyree Jackson,” Liepold said. “His experience, his production, everything he adds to this football team and the confidence he creates for his teammates when he’s on the field, that’s going to be very crucial.”

Jackson and Johnson will get a lot of attention on the offensive side of the ball, but they aren’t the whole show. The Bulls have a number of talented receivers behind Johnson in K.J. Osborn, Antonio Nunn, Tito Overton and a number of red-shirt freshmen. Liepold believes the Bulls’ receiver depth is “as good as it’s been.”

With all the attention Johnson will get from opposing defenses, it’ll be crucial for the other wide outs to be effective.

“Teams are going to realize we got other weapons on this offense,” Johnson said. “I have confidence these guys can step up and make plays.”

Buffalo also has depth in their backfield. Johnathan Hawkins missed the majority of the 2017 season after starting the first three games. Hawkins, along with junior Emmanuel Reed and sophomore Theo Anderson, will all look to get a number carries this year.

On the offensive line, the Bulls have four-year starting center James O’Hagan returning to the team. The two-time third-team All-MAC selection will lead an experienced offensive line along with junior left tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk.

“Those guys are so close,” Jackson commented on his offensive line. “They’ve played a lot of football together and those guys are intelligent. They’re a special group; I’d say our line is our strong point.”

On defense, Khalil Hodge is the standout. Since transferring from the City College of San Francisco (JUCO) in 2016, the linebacker has received All-MAC honors twice and led the MAC in tackles in 2017 with 154, also good for second in the NCAA.

Hodge will also be playing with a heavy heart this season, as his younger brother Kadeem was killed last December in their hometown Antioch, California. He was 19 years old.

The senior will certainly be motivated by the tragedy last winter, but he also feels the potential this year’s team has and is ready to turn some heads.

“I think we definitely do [sense the excitement around the team],” Hodge said. Not just on our team but at our university, the city of Buffalo as a whole, we can feel the excitement compared to other years.”

As a whole, the Bulls’ defense is solid in all areas. They’ll be returning a lot of experience on in the secondary and on the defensive line.

“Our defense is going to come out very strong this year,” Hodge said. “We have two great starting corners, Tatum Slack and Cam Lewis are both poised for big seasons. And on the line, Chuck Harris (an All-MAC selection), I don’t think he can be stopped”

Liepold also had high praise for senior Cam Lewis, saying he “is as good a competitor and passionate football player I’ve been around in 30 years. He comes out every day and he loves the game. He’s physical for a guy of smaller stature and he’s a guy we need on the field as well.”

Up front, seniors and third-year starters Chuck Harris and Justin Brandon will lead a defensive line that is replacing two starters from last season. Senior linebacker Jordan Collier is another returning starter and finished fifth on the team in tackles last year.

With all the returning starters, talent and expectations, 2018 should be a fun and historic season for the Bulls, one that’ll hopefully make 2017 an afterthought.

“Yea, I think guys really still have that [last season] in the back of their mind,” Jackson said. “They still have that chip on their shoulder and the feeling of being left out. But I don’t think guys are sitting on it too much. Guys are focused on this season and getting better each day and making it different this year.”

Focused. That’s the key word. With the expectations comes the pressure and with the talent comes the coverage. Scouts have also made their way to UB practices this summer; over 20 NFL teams have had representatives come out to see what Buffalo’s trio of stars are all about.

“I think the first couple of days you’re kind of in awe seeing [scouts] and stuff like that,” Hodge said. “But, myself, A.J. and Tyree, we go about it like business. You see them at the beginning of practice but after that you just work on your craft. No matter who’s out here we’re going to work as hard as we’re going to work.”

If that hard work pays off for the Bulls, they should reach their goal of getting to a bowl game; a MAC championship could be in Buffalo’s sights as well. A winning season, along with a bowl game berth and a conference championship would be quite the year for a team whose last (and only) conference title came in 2008.

“It would mean the world,” said Hodge. “That’s what we’re working for. And after being shorthanded last year, that’s definitely on our minds and that’s fueling our team to keep going.”

Kahlil Hodge, Tyree Jackson, Anthony Johnson, coach Liepold and the Bulls open their 2018 season on Saturday, September 1 at home against Delaware State. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m.

You can find the Bulls’ full 2018 schedule here: http://www.ubbulls.com/sports/fball/2018-19/schedule

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