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By MIKE SMITH
They may have finished at 4-8 overall last year, but the Buffalo Bulls acquitted themselves well in some close losses to good teams and finished 2012 with three wins over the final four games.  Sixteen starters return this year, including some strong playmakers on both sides of the ball.

PictureAlex Neutz
Editors note: This is part of a series previewing Mid-American Conference football teams. All 13 teams will be previewed before they open what figures to be a very competitive season.

OFFENSE
Then-freshman Joe Licata was at the QB helm down the stretch, giving him valuable experience and that dose of confidence that every freshman needs.

Actually, western New York state’s most decorated high school quarterback product earned an early confidence booster in his first appearance for the Bulls. His first collegiate pass found Alex Neutz on a 28-yard TD during a Week 2 matchup against Morgan State. 

That victory, however, proved to be the only Buffalo win through eight weeks. Head coach Jeff Quinn turned to Licata late, and the 6-2, 220-pounder replaced more run-oriented QB Alex Zordich for the final four contests.  Licata’s most productive outing was good for 285 passing yards (21/33) and a touchdown in a win over Western Michigan in his second start.

For the season, Licata connected on 86-of-163 aerials (52.8 percent) for 1,045 yards and seven TDs with three interceptions.  Zordich, now a senior,  completed 106-of-208 (51 percent) for 1,254 yards with nine TDs and seven picks. His ability to run the football provides UB with multiple options.

Among the nine starters returning on offense are some pretty good targets. Alex Neutz (6-4, 209), a First Team All-MAC selection, is coming off one of the best seasons ever by a Buffalo receiver and is within striking distance of several school records. The Bulls offensive MVP collected 65 catches for 1,015 yards (15.4) and 19 touchdowns despite drawing plenty of defensive focus each week.

Fellow senior Fred Lee is back after missing six games due to injury in 2012. Sophomore Marcus McGill had a strong spring and will challenge for a starting role, while Devon Hughes was second in catches for the Bulls (23 for 228 yards and one TD). Cordero Dixon had 10 receptions and served as the team’s punt returner. Rudy Johnson (16 catches, 182 yards in 10 games) and John Dunmore (10 catches 106 yards) are part of a deep wide-out group

Jimmy Gordon had 10 starts at tight end, registering 17 receptions for 262 yards and two TDs. Alex Dennison, meanwhile, proved versatile in the Bulls “Alley-Cat” formation. He caught six passes, carried the ball seven times and completed all three of his passing attempts in 2012.

The Bulls are certainly capable of running the ball, especially if RB Brandon Oliver can stay healthy. Such was not the case in 2012, when he missed three whole games and most of four others in which he tried to play. Nonetheless, the 5-8, 203-pound senior led UB with 821 yards, averaging 117 yards per game. He is 626 yards and two 100-yard games away from owning the program record for career rushing yards and 100-yard games.

With Oliver often banged up, freshman Devin Campbell took advantage of his touches by racking up 502 yards rushing, 176 yards passing and three touchdowns. He was named Bulls Newcomer of the Year.

Brandon Murie, meanwhile, accumulated 477 all-purpose yards while seeing action in 10 games. Boomer Brock has recovered from an injury that forced him to miss most of last season and will return to his fullback position.

While the running backs were saddled with injuries and the quarterback position saw a big change, Buffalo’s offensive front remained stable – and productive – in 2012. The quintet started every game, springing three different ball carriers for 500 yards or more.

Three starters from that group are back: Andre Davis, Trevor Sales and Jasen Carlson.  Dillon Guy is part of a large group contending for the final two spots, as well as playing time.

DEFENSE
The Bulls will miss four-year standout Steven Means, but senior DE Colby Way returns to head a defensive line that has been an impact unit. The Bulls tied for third in sacks last year, which is no small feat given other strong defenses in the conversation. Only Bowling Green (29) and Northern Illinois (21) finished ahead of Buffalo and Kent State (both 21) in MAC-action sacks.

Buffalo was second (behind BG) in total defense, fourth in rushing defense, second in pass defense and fourth in scoring defense.

Krisjan Sokoli played in all 12 UB games last year, including time at nose guard. Senior Beau Bachtelle also figures into a unit that has been increasing its depth. Redshirts and a strong recruiting group  may help keep a group of feisty Bulls up front

PictureKhalil Mack
That frontline unit will be backed up by some outstanding talent at the next level. Senior Khalil Mack (6-3, 245)  has proven to be one of the MAC’s outstanding defenders and would no doubt like to top off his career with an outstanding senior season that could solidify his NFL draft stock. He also has a shot at taking over the NCAA record for TFL. His 2012 numbers included 94 tackles, 21 TFL for 98 yards, eight sacks and four forced fumbles. He was a First Team All-MAC selection last year for the second consecutive year and earned Sports Illustrated Honorable Mention All-American honors.

Joining Mack in patrolling the mid-level is Lee Skinner (6-2, 226, JR). Like Mack, he thrived in the Bulls defensive scheme, registering 89 tackles (second on team), with five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Junior Jake Stockman (6-2, 235) could round out a very formidable group.

There was some uncertainty about UB’s defensive backfield leading up to 2012, but the backs eventually proved to be another UB strength. After getting 19 pass deflections in their first eight games, the Bulls registered 21 deflections over the final four outings.

The backfield benefits from strong passer pressure in front of it and has the skills to worry some opposing QBs. Buffalo cornerbacks finished 1-2 in MAC interceptions last year. Najja Johnson had five as a junior and then-sophomore Courtney Lester picked off four – three of them coming in a 29-24 win over Western Michigan.

Injuries hit the safety spots last year, and junior Witney Sherry (6-0, 185) was one of the “stricken.” After an impressive start, he missed the final six games due to injury. Okoye Houston played in 12 games and started eight, while Derek Brim notched five starts. Adam Redden and Marqis Baker also saw expanded roles, in part due to injuries among the safeties. Both were solid special teams contributors. With more help on the way, the Buffalo defensive backfield could continue to shine.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Sophomore Tyler Grassman returns after averaging 35.4 yards per punt last year, while junior placekicker Patrick Clarke converted 11-of-15 field goals in 2012. That included clutch FGs of 49 and 47 yards in a win over Miami. The victory broke a six-game losing streak and got UB started on a three-game win streak before losing the finale to Bowling Green.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW
If the Bulls can avoid a rash of injuries  - at least in some key spots – they could be a force in the ultra competitive MAC East. Certainly, opponents who take them lightly will be taking a risk. Can Buffalo come out of road matchups against Ohio State and Baylor relatively intact?  If so, there are some “developmental” opportunities to build depth before a rugged MAC schedule down the stretch.

NOTES
-- Buffalo’s defensive success, particularly at linebacker, reflects the expertise of defensive coordinator Lou Tepper.  Now in his second year with the Bulls, Tepper has tutored three Butkus Award winners and served as defensive coordinator at LSU, Illinois and Colorado. He also fashioned a 101-75-2 record while in head coaching assignments at Illinois, Edinboro and Indiana PA. In all, Tepper has 35 years of coaching experience.

-- Head coach Jeff Quinn came to Buffalo in December of 2009. Since then the Bulls have gradually moved forward with two wins in 2010, three wins in 2011 and four victories last year. With the late season surge in 2012, Buffalo fans are hoping for a nice jump forward this time around.

-- A three-game stretch in late October and early November will say a lot about Buffalo’s chances to contend for MAC East honors. The stretch begins at Kent State and ends at Toledo, with a home contest against MAC East favorite Ohio in the middle. Buffalo lost to Toledo by five (25-20) and Ohio by seven (38-31) last year.

-- The linebacking corps could get another shot in the arm with transfer Blake Bean. The junior college transfer helped Butler Community College make the 2012 national championship game before enrolling at UB and participating in spring drills.

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