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D3 legend Lance Leipold is struggling at Buffalo. Is 2017 turnaround time?

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One of football’s winningest coaches faces some urgency with one of FBS’ worst teams.

Buffalo v Boston College Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

They play 11-on-11 in both Division III and FBS. The field dimensions are the same. The mean temperature in mid-November is virtually identical in Whitewater and Buffalo. Recruiting has continued apace — not great, but no worse than Buffalo is used to.

Still, Lance Leipold, one of football’s biggest winners, is losing. In two seasons at Buffalo, the guy who went 109-6 at Wisconsin-Whitewater is 7-17.

It seemed like it was starting well, too. In his first year succeeding Jeff Quinn, Leipold engineered a sound, high-floor, low-ceiling squad that went 5-7 while rising 25 spots in the S&P+ rankings. After a slow start, the Bulls thumped former Leipold mentor Frank Solich’s Ohio and won two tight road games in a hot streak before fading in November. It seemed like a hint of things to come.

In 2016, however, Buffalo was really bad. The Bulls went 2-10 with what was, per S&P+, the second-worst team and third-worst offense in all of FBS. Buffalo scored more than 24 points once all season and offset wins over Army and Akron with humbling losses to Albany and awful Nevada, Kent State, and Bowling Green teams.

The high floor and efficiency potential drifted away like your breath in a Buffalo winter.

A second-year collapse can be misleading. Sometimes it takes a couple of years to get your house in order. Maybe you inherited upperclassmen in your first season and have to deal with a youth movement in your second. Maybe you have a quarterback change that doesn’t go according to plan.

Look at the travails of another legendary coach, Craig Bohl. The North Dakota State hero showed up at Wyoming, went 4-8 in his first season, then backtracked to 2-10. His Cowboys then surged to eight wins and a division title in 2016. Hell, it was a similar story in Ypsilanti; Buffalo’s conference mate Eastern Michigan went 3-21 in two seasons under Chris Creighton, then 7-6 in year three.

Slow growth happens. Non-linear growth happens. And 2016’s collapse doesn’t have to mean the end of the world for a team that returns a sophomore quarterback, most of its offensive line, and most of its defense. But going 2-10 in your second year means you sacrifice benefit of the doubt.

For maybe the first time, Leipold might be under true pressure soon. That might be why he took this job in the first place. In his first season at UWW, he went 14-1 and won the D3 national title. After losing a ghastly two games and finishing as runner-up, his team went 45-0 with three titles over the next three seasons. They hit reset in 2012, then went 30-0 with two titles in 2013-14.

In 2012, UWW’s 46-game winning streak ended with a 7-6 loss at the hands of Buffalo State. Maybe the Nickel City is simply Leipold’s Kryptonite?


2016 in review

2016 UB statistical profile.

Buffalo learned right from the start that 2016 was going to be long. After beginning 2015 with a 51-14 win over Albany, the Bulls began 2016 against the same team ... and lost, 22-16. Redshirt freshman Tyree Jackson and Iowa State transfer Grant Rohach combined to complete 17 of 34 passes for 177 yards while throwing three picks and taking three sacks.

UB took a 16-14 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Great Danes scored with 9:37 left, and at the end of a 13-play, 74-yard drive, Jackson coughed up the ball on a fourth-and-goal leap. UB got the ball back, and Jackson threw a pick.

That set the bar. The Bulls would upset Army three weeks later and put a randomly awesome offensive performance together against Akron. But while the defense was never strong, the offense was dreadfully unreliable.

Win expectancy looks at the postgame stats and says, “Based on these stats, you could have expected to win this game X percent of the time.” UB had a greater than 10 percent win expectancy just four times all season. Six games were at 2 percent or worse. And this came against a schedule that featured nine teams ranked 86th or worse in S&P+.

This was a lost season. The question is, why? And what might change?


Offense

Buffalo offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Buffalo’s offense did one thing well: It avoided moving backwards. I would venture to say that’s the second-most important thing an offense can do.

The problem is that the first-most important thing is moving forward. Buffalo was incapable of doing that with regularity.

Leipold stuck with coordinator Andy Kotelnicki despite last year’s collapse, which makes sense. Kotelnicki came with Leipold from UWW, and the two share philosophical similarities. He actually led an offensive rebound for the Warhawks after their 2012 slump.

Leipold did, however, reassign Kotelnicki’s duties, moving him from quarterbacks to running backs and bringing in a new/old assistant to oversee QBs: Jim Zebrowski, another former UWW coordinator who left Whitewater to become QBs coach at NIU, then Minnesota.

It made sense to bring in some new influence because Jackson, the future of the program, struggled in 2016.

Physically, Jackson is blessed. He’s enormous (6’7, 245), he can run (88 non-sack carries for 460 yards), and he can throw as far as he wants to. And most encouraging, he kept an even keel when things weren’t going well.

Maturity and passing the eyeball test are important, but UB’s near future depends on Jackson actually performing. In 10 games, he produced a passer rating over 117 just twice: He went a combined 51-for-84 for 608 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception in losses to Ball State and Ohio.

But in those games, tight end Mason Schreck caught 16 of 21 balls for 181 yards. Schreck (66 percent catch rate, 11 yards per catch) has graduated, as has Marcus McGill (65 percent catch rate, 14.3 yards per catch). Jackson’s completion rate was only 53 percent with those two.

It’s fair to say Jackson will be at least a little better in 2017 because young QBs simply tend to improve. And maybe Zebrowski will speed that up. But what about his supporting cast?

The line appears to be a strength. Buffalo was pretty good at avoiding stuffs (59th in stuff rate, i.e. run stops at or behind the line) and strong in short-yardage situations (31st in power success rate). That tends to reflect well on the guys up front, and four starting linemen are back, including two-year starters Brandon Manosalvas (guard) and James O’Hagan (center).

Add enormous Rutgers transfer Jacquis Webb (6’4, 344) and Grambling transfer Paul Nosworthy, and you likely have a strong starting five.

The line will have some nice runners to block for, too. Jackson isn’t explosive, but he boasted a strong, 48 percent opportunity rate (non-sack carries gaining at least five yards). And while starting back Jordan Johnson (36 percent opportunity rate) is gone, backups Johnathan Hawkins (38 percent) and Emmanuel Reed (43 percent, albeit on just seven carries) flashed efficiency numbers.

Buffalo v Boston College
Johnathan Hawkins
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Johnson’s random explosive plays were almost all this offense had going for it at times, but efficiency is consistency, and if the run game is better at moving forward in addition to simply not moving backwards, that could set the passing game up.

You still need guys to throw to, though. Only two returning wideouts caught more than 10 passes last year — Kamathi Holsey and Jamarl Eiland — and they combined for a dreadful 40 percent catch rate while averaging just 9.8 yards per catch. Yards per target between them: 3.9.

So that leaves ... the tight ends? With Schreck gone, Tyler Mabry (95 receiving yards, 7.3 per target) is your leading returnee, and Maryland transfer Andrew Gray could join the rotation.

Running backs? Hawkins did catch 21 of 34 balls last year, albeit for just 119 yards.

Young wideouts? Sophomore K.J. Osborn caught eight passes for 105 yards, redshirt freshman Tito Overton was a low-three-star recruit per the 247Sports Composite, and incoming freshman Rodney Scott from Miami was the jewel of the 2017 signing class.

It’s possible to build a decent corps out of these young pieces, but it might take until at least 2018 to develop some consistency. But hey, at least the run game might be a bit better.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Northern Illinois
Tyree Jackson
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Buffalo defensive radar

Brian Borland’s UWW defenses were works of art. His Warhawks were the Alabama of Division III, brilliant at defending the run and forcing passing downs, then adept at closing out drives on passing downs. Between 2009-14, Borland’s worst UWW defense allowed 12.2 points per game and 4.4 yards per play.

I doubt either Leipold or Borland were surprised to find crafting a strong defense at UB more difficult. They inherited a unit that ranked 124th in Def. S&P+ in 2014, and while they’ve engineered improvement, it’s been sporadic. Borland never had to get overly aggressive at UWW, instead relying on leverage and better-developed talent.

At UB, there’s been no built-in development advantage. And while the pass defense showed signs of life and successful aggression, the Bulls couldn’t even pretend to stop the run for most of the year. They ranked 122nd in Rushing S&P+ and 126th in Standard Downs S&P+.

Opponents found such little resistance in the ground game that they ran 70 percent of the time on standard downs (fifth-most in the country) and 45 percent on passing downs (third). That opponents knew they didn’t have much to fear from UB’s offense didn’t help, but wow. It doesn’t matter that you can stop the pass if you can’t force opponents to try.

This run defense struggled with linemen Brandon Crawford and Remaine Douglas providing size (Douglas was listed at 303 pounds) and play-making (Crawford had 14.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 of the non-sack variety). Now the Bulls are without both. Size should still be a relative strength — returning ends average 6’4 and 269 pounds while the top two tackles average 6’2, 310 — but there’s every reason to wonder about talent. There’s only one former three-star in the potential rotation, and that’s reserve tackle Corey Henderson, who made all of one solo tackle and two assists last year.

The pass defense should remain promising, even if that doesn’t matter often. All of last year’s primary linebackers return, and both Khalil Hodge and Ishmael Hargrove showed promise in blitzing situations. Plus, six of last year’s top seven DBs are scheduled to return. This includes senior safeties Ryan Williamson and Tim Roberts and junior corner Cameron Lewis, who led the Bulls with seven pass breakups.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Northern Illinois
Khalil Hodge
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

There does appear to be upside in the back. The experience level is strong, and that’s before we mention the five young former three-star recruits: sophomore corner Jeremiah Dadeboe, redshirt freshman corner Tyrone Hill, true freshman corner Aapri Washington, and freshman safeties Rick Squires and Kobe Green.

Again, that won’t really matter until two things happen: The offense improves enough to be a threat, and the run defense improves enough to force opponents to the air.

Buffalo v Western Michigan
Tatum Slack (9) and Cameron Lewis (39)
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Special Teams

Leipold couldn’t even lean on special teams for an advantage. There were no shortcuts whatsoever. The kick return duo of Johnathan Hawkins and Jamarl Eiland was able to produce efficient if less-than-explosive returns, and Eiland averaged a not-awful 7.1 yards per punt return. But on the rare occasion that Buffalo had reason to kickoff, the Bulls’ kicks were neither deep nor well-covered. And Kyle DeWeen’s six punts per game averaged under 40 yards.

On top of everything else, Buffalo ranked 121st in Special Teams S&P+. This might be one of those cases where “Everyone returns!” isn’t necessarily a positive.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Minnesota 47 -27.0 6%
9-Sep at Army 102 -12.6 23%
16-Sep Colgate NR 4.0 59%
23-Sep Florida Atlantic 99 -8.6 31%
30-Sep at Kent State 123 -7.0 34%
7-Oct Western Michigan 74 -15.5 18%
14-Oct Northern Illinois 86 -11.2 26%
21-Oct at Miami (Ohio) 88 -15.9 18%
28-Oct at Akron 122 -7.1 34%
7-Nov Bowling Green 95 -9.2 30%
16-Nov at Ball State 90 -15.6 18%
24-Nov Ohio 103 -7.2 34%
Projected S&P+ Rk 128
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 129 / 103
Projected wins 3.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -21.5 (127)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 117 / 120
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -6 / -4.6
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 59% (47%, 71%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 2.3 (-0.3)

Leipold has seen failure before, believe it or not. He was a graduate assistant on Barry Alvarez’s Wisconsin teams from 1991-93, when the Badgers twice came up short of expectations before breaking through with a Rose Bowl bid in ‘93. He moved to an assistant role at Nebraska-Omaha, which went 4-18 in 1994-95 before a sustained breakthrough.

He has also been on a train moving in the opposite direction — he was a Solich assistant at Nebraska from 2001-03, a span that saw the Huskers move from title contender to seven-loss afterthought.

Leipold had been an assistant for 20 years in different levels of football, with differing levels of success, before his absurd run at UWW. It’s not fair to assume he didn’t know enough about the FBS landscape or that he doesn’t know how to deal with failure. Those failures helped to sculpt both the process by which he won and the process he is leaning on to maneuver choppy waters.

We’ve seen enough third-year breakthroughs to know it is a possibility, especially from a coach with so much on his record. If Buffalo is able to establish an efficient run game and defend the run well enough to send a solid pass defense into action, then a lot of games on the schedule become semi-winnable. UB plays 10 teams projected 86th or worse in S&P+ — five at home, five on the road — so a path back to four or five wins doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Still, there’s a reason why UB is projected 128th. Any hopes for a third-year leap are based on examples from other schools. What we know about this Buffalo team is that it was awful with a reasonably experienced two-deep.

Leipold and the Bulls could bounce back, but they are losing the benefit of the doubt. And the list of assets suggests the bounce might not come until 2018.


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