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1. Welcome, Lance Leipold!
It was smart of Buffalo to stick that "If you lose to Army and EMU in the same season, you're done immediately" clause into Jeff Quinn's contract, huh? It got the Bulls a pretty good replacement.
Quinn's tenure at UB was an odd one. Turner Gill broke through with a shocking MAC title run in 2008, then got hired away by Kansas after an unspectacular 5-7 campaign. In Quinn's first season, Buffalo collapsed to 2-10 and 118th in the F/+ rankings. Brian Kelly's former right-hand man slowly rebounded; the Bulls improved for three straight years -- to 3-9 and 107th, then to 4-8 and 98th, then to 8-5 and 72nd.
He was doing well enough to extend his contract, but it became clear heading into 2014 that a serious rebuild was going to take place.
Quinn began the offseason tasked with replacing four assistants.
New assistants can work out -- as with any hire, from head coach to graduate assistant, it is more or less a coin flip -- but these new assistants will be working with new talent in key roles. Running back Branden Oliver and receiver Alex Neutz are gone. So are all-conference guard Jasen Carlson and both starting defensive ends. Star defensive backs Okoye Houston and Najja Houston have run out of eligibility, as has outside linebacker Adam Redden. And, of course, so has surefire first-round draft pick Khalil Mack.
So almost every reason for Buffalo's strong 2013 is gone, other than Quinn himself.
There were just too many pieces to replace. But there's a difference between "unimpressive" and "losing to Army and EMU." UB was unlucky in losing to Army while outgaining the Cadets by 88 yards and still falling by eight points, but EMU straight manhandled the Bulls. That can't happen, and Quinn was dumped the Monday after the trip to Ypsilanti.
On paper, Quinn was a logical choice to replace Gill: regionally successful major-program coordinator (Cincinnati was coming off of its one-loss 2009 campaign and near-BCS Championship appearance) with ties to Ohio (Cincy) and Michigan (Central Michigan, Grand Valley State). And no matter how far you lower the bar after one year, improving in your second, third, and fourth years is a rare feat. To some degree, his firing was a strange move.
But when you replace him with a guy with a 109-6 career record, it seems a hell of a lot less strange.
Lance Leipold proved everything he possibly could at the Division III level. A Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback in the 1980s, he played for two legendary UWW coaches -- Forrest Perkins (after whom the team's stadium was named) and Bill Berezowitz, who coached for 22 seasons and reached the DIII finals in each of his last two seasons. Leipold was a GA and assistant at UWW, spent three years as a GA at Wisconsin, spent three years with Frank Solich at Nebraska, and served as an assistant at Nebraska-Omaha for a decade in two stints. He had an impressive track record, but nobody at UWW could have known what they were getting when he was named head coach in 2007.
In his first season, Leipold did what Berezowitz couldn't: beat Mount Union in the DIII finals. He won six national titles, beating Union in the finals all six times. He needed only 106 games to reach 100 wins -- the fastest ever to do so -- and he wasn't on the radar screen for Buffalo fans before he was suddenly announced.
Now, almost everything is different. Leipold just signed his first recruiting class with scholarship players. He does have six years of experience as a Big Ten assistant, but the last was 2003. This feels like a spectacular hire, but it could fail for any number of reasons. Still, if you have a chance to hire a guy with a 95 percent all-time win percentage, you should feel good about taking that chance.
2. What is Leipoldball?
Defense. Defense, defense, defense, defense, defense.
Leipold may have been offensive coordinator at Nebraska-Omaha, but his Whitewater teams were stingy and vicious. In his last six seasons at UWW, the Warhawks never allowed more than 12.2 points per game, 4.4 yards per play, or 300 yards per game. They were sound, aggressive, and opportunistic.
It's hard to glean style from the stats because the stats were great across the board, but 2014 UWW picked off 24 passes, broke up another 61, forced 17 fumbles, and logged 97 tackles for loss. Their Havoc Rate of 19.5 percent would have ranked 14th at the FBS level, and their 4.4 yards per play allowed (their worst average since 2008) would have ranked fourth.
Buffalo's defensive two-deep isn't going to be experienced enough to make drastic improvement -- it takes a while, as new Wyoming head coach (and former North Dakota State head coach/defensive whiz) Craig Bohl found out in 2014. Still, while the offense varied in style and production based on personnel (42.5 points per game in 2009, 24.7 in 2012, 40.1 in 2014), the defense was consistently awesome. And while Leipold's defensive line coach, Kevin Bullis, stayed in Whitewater to become the new head coach, Leipold was able to entice defensive coordinator Brian Borland to make the trip to UB with him.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-6 | Adj. Record: 3-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 114|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|4-Oct||at Bowling Green||98||35-36||L||21%||-18.5||52%|
|11-Oct||at Eastern Michigan||128||27-37||L||1%||-59.0||3%|
|Points Per Game||32.3||44||31.5||97|
3. A late, short rally
Buffalo was dreadful out of the gates, struggling past Duquesne, allowing 7.6 yards per play to Army, and forgivably allowing 8.6 to Baylor. The offense showed promise, but the defense just got wrecked repeatedly.
The Bulls began to look better in wins over Norfolk State and Miami (Ohio) and a tight road loss to eventual MAC East champion Bowling Green. Offensive coordinator Alex Wood took over as interim coach, and the offense fell apart -- star rusher Anthone Taylor rushed 31 times for just 62 yards in losses to CMU and Ohio -- but the team rallied for a couple of masterpieces to finish the season.
- Average percentile performance, first 3 games: 5% (record: 0-3)
- Average percentile performance, next 3 games: 31% (2-1)
- Average percentile performance, next 3 games: 10% (0-3)
- Average percentile performance, last 2 games: 67% (2-0)
A weather cancellation against Kent State in late-November prevented the Bulls from getting to 6-6 (though thanks to two FCS wins, they wouldn't have been bowl-eligible), but the late surge built the case for optimism.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.0%||47||Succ. Rt. +||92.7||98|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||32.3||113||Def. FP+||94.1||121|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.9||24||Redzone S&P+||95.1||80|
|Q1 Rk||81||1st Down Rk||100|
|Q2 Rk||116||2nd Down Rk||85|
|Q3 Rk||56||3rd Down Rk||47|
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Joe Licata||6'2, 227||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7700||224||345||2647||29||11||64.9%||16||4.4%||7.1|
|Tony Daniel||6'5, 206||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||9||15||149||2||1||60.0%||0||0.0%||9.9|
|Chris Merchant||6'2, 193||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8083|
|Tyree Jackson||6'4, 205||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8248|
4. Bailing yourself out with big plays
Down to down, Buffalo had the same offense in 2014 as 2013.
I caught some flack from Buffalo fans for suggesting that star rusher Branden Oliver was replaceable, but Anthone Taylor matched Oliver's averages and totals, and Jordan Johnson and Devin Campbell (a solid return man) were capable backups. I expected a drop-off in the passing game after Alex Neutz and Fred Lee (combined: 119 catches, 8.5 yards per target in 2013) left, but the sudden emergence of Ron Willoughby (50 catches, 771 yards, 9.2 yards per target) and solid depth accounted for those losses.
If there was a difference in Buffalo's play, it was in consistency. Taylor wasn't as efficient as Oliver, even though he made up for the difference with more explosiveness. Willoughby was a bit of an all-or-nothing threat, with per-catch averages near 15 yards but a catch rate just under 60 percent.
Buffalo was a poor team on standard downs but was able to use a multitude of big-play weapons to make it up on passing downs. That's a tough formula to lean on, and Buffalo oscillated between strong offensive performances (6.9 yards per play against Army, 6.5 against Miami, 7.0 against Akron, 7.2 against UMass) and dreadful ones (4.6 against CMU, 2.7 against Ohio). It also resulted in Licata forcing the issue -- UB had solid red zone scoring numbers, but he threw a few interceptions in scoring opportunities.
|Anthone Taylor||RB||5'10, 207||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||282||1403||12||5.0||5.7||35.5%||4||3|
|Jordan Johnson||RB||6'0, 216||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7661||74||361||1||4.9||3.5||41.9%||0||0|
|Devin Campbell||RB||5'11, 203||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7600||33||161||0||4.9||5.8||33.3%||1||1|
|Joe Licata||QB||6'2, 227||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7700||18||83||2||4.6||3.0||38.9%||2||0|
|Tony Daniel||QB||6'5, 206||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||6||45||1||7.5||5.2||66.7%||0||0|
|Zach Nicholas||RB||6'0, 194||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7583||5||18||0||3.6||0.8||60.0%||0||0|
|Gary Hosey||RB||5'11, 247||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8261|
|Johnathan Hawkins||RB||5'11, 212||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8404|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Ron Willoughby||WR||6'4, 199||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||84||50||771||59.5%||24.1%||64.3%||9.2||157||9.2||97.0|
|Jacob Martinez||WR||6'2, 187||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8300||40||28||273||70.0%||11.5%||62.5%||6.8||-60||7.0||34.3|
|Marcus McGill||WR||6'1, 222||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8119||31||22||343||71.0%||8.9%||61.3%||11.1||82||11.0||43.1|
|Devin Campbell||RB||5'11, 203||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7600||27||24||182||88.9%||7.8%||48.1%||6.7||-93||6.9||22.9|
|Anthone Taylor||RB||5'10, 207||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||23||16||106||69.6%||6.6%||52.2%||4.6||-85||4.5||13.3|
|Matt Weiser||TE||6'5, 245||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||19||15||286||78.9%||5.5%||63.2%||15.1||111||15.5||36.0|
|Mason Schreck||TE||6'5, 246||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7715||16||10||106||62.5%||4.6%||68.8%||6.6||-16||6.4||13.3|
|Boise Ross||CB||6'0, 182||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||N/A||13||8||69||61.5%||3.7%||69.2%||5.3||-29||5.1||8.7|
|Malcolm Robinson||WR||6'1, 196||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7300||8||3||31||37.5%||2.3%||50.0%||3.9||-10||3.8||3.9|
|Jamarl Eiland||WR||5'10, 198||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7841||4||4||89||100.0%||1.1%||50.0%||22.3||44||21.2||11.2|
|Kendall Patterson||FB||6'0, 238||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7600||4||4||27||100.0%||1.1%||75.0%||6.8||-18||5.6||3.4|
|Jordan Johnson||RB||6'0, 216||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7661||4||3||21||75.0%||1.1%||75.0%||5.3||-14||5.9||2.6|
|Tyler Mabry||TE||6'4, 240||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
5. All the experience you could want
Three of Leipold's six career losses came in one season, the 2012 campaign that saw an impressive offensive collapse. To rejuvenate, Leipold brought in Andy Kotelnicki, who had served offensive coordinator stints at UW-River Falls and Division II's University of Mary. UWW quarterback Matt Behrendt improved from a 59 percent completion rate and a 4.4 percent interception rate to 65.7 percent and 0.2 percent. UWW went from throwing 38 percent of the time to 47 percent, implementing quick passes to a variety of targets -- two players caught 70-plus passes, another caught 41, and four more caught between 15 and 28.
In 2014, UWW began taking more shots downfield. Behrendt's per-completion average went from 10.8 yards to 13.2, and both his completion (to 67.3 percent) and interception rates (to 1.9) rose. The run game was phenomenal in 2014 (the top three backs combined to average 6.3 yards per carry), so UWW leaned more on that.
Leipold and Kotelnicki (who also came with him to Buffalo) are reasonably flexible in their approaches.
That makes it difficult to figure out what the primary focus will be in 2015, because Buffalo returns experience and potential playmakers at each level of the offense. Licata's back for another year as UB signal caller, and he'll once again share a backfield with Taylor. Leipold doesn't mind leaning on the run if given the chance, and the backfield might have wonderful depth, especially if a Composite three-star (either redshirt freshman Gary Hosey or true freshman Johnathan Hawkins) emerges as a quality backup.
Meanwhile, Ron Willoughby and Marcus McGill both showed high-caliber play-action skills, combining to average 15.5 yards per catch. And if short passing is the goal, sophomore Jacob Martinez could become a "60 catches, 650 yards" kind of guy.
Though there will be plenty of rushing, UB's preferences could end up depending on what its green line can do.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Jake Silas||LT||24||2014 2nd All-MAC|
|John Kling||RT||6'7, 324||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||11|
|Robert Blodgett||RG||6'5, 311||Sr.||NR||0.7000||9|
|Brandon Manosalvas||RG||6'4, 308||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||2|
|Matt Murphy||LT||6'7, 302||So.||NR||N/A||0|
|Todd Therrien||LG||6'1, 277||Sr.||NR||N/A||0|
|Albert McCoy||RT||6'4, 289||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7100||0|
|Andy Fidler||OL||6'6, 284||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7819|
|Skylar Hartley||OL||6'1, 323||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7494|
6. Depth problems in the trenches, part 1
UB's offensive line was mediocre by MAC standards. And that was with all-conference tackle Jake Silas, four-year starting guard Andre Davis, and three-year starting center Trevor Sales. Three return with starting experience, including monstrous tackle John Kling, but the top three on last year's two-deep are gone, and UB will probably rely on sophomores and redshirt freshmen.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||37.5%||20||Succ. Rt. +||98.9||71|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||31.6||30||Off. FP+||98.0||88|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||5.2||124||Redzone S&P+||91.9||97|
|Q1 Rk||100||1st Down Rk||104|
|Q2 Rk||95||2nd Down Rk||97|
|Q3 Rk||122||3rd Down Rk||128|
7. A dangerous, bad defense
Buffalo really wanted to attack. Working from Lou Tepper's aggressive 3-3-5 scheme, the Bulls got their hands on lots of passes, rushed the quarterback pretty well, got into the backfield against the run with regularity, and got a nice push in short-yardage situations. They allowed 137 gains of 10-plus yards, good for sixth in the country.
They also allowed 68 gains of 20-plus yards, 103rd in the country. And 30 gains of 30-plus, 90th in the country. They were about as far away from a bend-don't-break defense as you could get -- either they were going to break you or (more likely) you were going to break them, and they weren't going to wait around to find out.
And hey, if you're going to field a bad defense, you might as well be entertaining about it.
Despite drastic turnover, Leipold and coordinator Brian Borland do find guys who showed aggressiveness potential: end Brandon Crawford (three sacks, three break-ups), linebackers Okezie Alozie (ditto), Jarrett Franklin (five tackles for loss), and Kyril Threats (three sacks), corner Boise Ross (seven passes defensed).
But there were so many breakdowns, and there's so much new blood, that I would be surprised if Borland and Leipold were willing to take too many chances. My bet is that Buffalo's havoc rate and success rate go down, but the big-play numbers improve. That should be the goal, anyway.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Brandon Crawford||DE||6'2, 275||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785||10||13.0||2.2%||3.0||3.0||0||3||2||0|
|Max Perisse||DE||6'4, 271||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||10||10.0||1.7%||2.5||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Chris Ford||NG||6'2, 315||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7444||9||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Corey Henderson||DE||6'4, 266||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8133|
|Jake Khoury||NG||6'2, 280||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7719|
|Christian Gonzalez||DT||6'5, 290||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7817|
8. Depth problem in the trenches, part 2
UB is moving from a three-man line to a four-man line, and four of last year's top five tacklers on the line are gone. That's a bad combination.
Players like Crawford and Perisse could move inside, but then either some freshmen or undersized outside linebackers might have to fill in at end. There are intriguing options -- sophomore Chris Ford is enormous, and three-star RSFr Corey Henderson could be exciting -- but Borland might find himself choosing between high-upside youngsters and low-upside veterans. Either way, the likelihood of steady line play is low, even if the injury bug doesn't bite.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jarrett Franklin||OLB||6'0, 217||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||11||39.0||6.7%||5.0||1.0||0||0||1||0|
|Okezie Alozie||OLB||6'0, 217||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7300||11||38.0||6.5%||5.0||3.0||0||3||1||0|
|Nick Gilbo||LB||6'1, 222||Sr.||NR||N/A||11||31.0||5.3%||4.0||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Kyril Threats||OLB||6'2, 224||Sr.||NR||N/A||11||17.0||2.9%||4.0||3.0||0||1||0||0|
|Travis Pitzonka||LB||6'1, 220||Sr.||NR||N/A||9||9.0||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Greg Lis||LB||6'0, 222||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7571||6||5.5||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Houston Glass||OLB||6'0, 206||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7683||11||3.0||0.5%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|C.J. Stancil||OLB||5'11, 203||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7400||11||2.5||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Will White||LB||5'11, 218||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8295|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Boise Ross||CB||6'0, 182||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||N/A||11||21.0||3.6%||1||0||1||6||0||1|
|Andrews Dadeboe||FS||6'1, 196||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7900||11||11.0||1.9%||0.5||0||0||4||0||0|
|Ryan Williamson||DB||6'0, 182||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7844||11||9.5||1.6%||1||0||0||1||1||0|
|Brandon Berry||SS||6'0, 204||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8119||9||6.0||1.0%||1||0||0||1||1||0|
|Marqus Baker||CB||5'10, 180||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||4||5.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Terrance Wilson||DB||5'9, 181||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7944|
|Cameron Lewis||CB||5'11, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8033|
|Jeremiah Dadeboe||CB||6'2, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8400|
9. So much to replace
Adam Redden was one of the best attacking safeties in the country (and not a particularly good big-play prevention guy), and only 29 players defensed more passes than Cortney Lester did. (That Lester broke up 13 passes and made only 27.5 tackles tells you that he was either an incredible cover guy or an abysmal tackler, and when you look at UB's overall defensive numbers, that could go either way.) They're both gone, as are two others in the rotation.
One would assume that moving from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3-4 defense would create depth issues up front but create nice depth in the back, with three safeties fighting to fill two spots. But only one of last year's top five DBs returns, and only three returnees logged more than six tackles last year. Borland is inheriting the expected depth issues up front with none of the payoff in the back.
Leipold's first recruiting class includes a couple of exciting DBs in 247Sports three-stars Cam Lewis and Jeremiah Dadeboe. But "maybe the freshmen will be ready" doesn't spark a particularly optimistic tone.
|Tyler Grassman||6'1, 195||Sr.||50||40.7||4||20||16||72.0%|
|Devin Campbell||KR||5'11, 203||Sr.||28||23.3||0|
|Jacob Martinez||KR||6'2, 187||So.||6||14.5||0|
|Jacob Martinez||PR||6'2, 187||So.||7||5.4||0|
|Marcus McGill||PR||6'1, 222||Sr.||3||10.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||118|
|Field Goal Efficiency||128|
|Punt Return Efficiency||92|
|Kick Return Efficiency||20|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||63|
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|12-Sep||at Penn State||45|
|19-Sep||at Florida Atlantic||100|
|?||at Central Michigan||85|
|?||at Kent State||107|
|?||at Miami (Ohio)||103|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-28.7% (113)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||104 / 118|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-3 / 3.8|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||-3.1|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||11 (7, 4)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||5.4 (-0.4)|
10. Let's see how this goes
From a pure curiosity standpoint, I love that Craig Bohl and Lance Leipold are coaching in the FBS ranks now. I love that mid-major teams were able to attract impressive winners. And in theory, thanks to the offensive skill talent, you could talk yourself into Buffalo doing well if you are to assume that a Leipold/Borland defense will always have a high floor.
Buffalo has some drastic questions to ask on both lines, and it takes a leap of faith to think that even this defensive staff can make something of the UB defense. But with a schedule that features eight teams that ranked 98th or worse in F/+ last year, Leipold and the Bulls don't need definitive answers to get the Bulls bowling again -- they only need competence. Until proven otherwise, I'm going to assume Leipold can find that.