Spring Opponent Review: Buffalo
With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, HuskerOnline.com will look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2021 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.
Today we preview the Buffalo Bulls, who will take on the Huskers at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 11.
Buffalo is undergoing significant changes after head coach Lance Leipold, the winningest coach in program history, left to take the job at Kansas shortly after the end of spring practices in late April.
In came Maurice "Mo" Linguist, a former UB assistant coach who was the co-defensive coordinator at Michigan for a cup of coffee after serving as defensive backs coach for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020.
Without a spring to acclimate the new staff with the roster and vice versa, the Bulls have plenty of questions to answer over the summer and fall.
We caught up with Rachel Lenzi of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News to get the latest on where things stand during a busy offseason.
Coming off its most successful season in program history, Buffalo went through its 15 spring practices pretty much the same way it had the past six years under Leipold.
Then, less than three weeks after the Bulls wrapped up their final spring session, Leipold was off to take over at Kansas.
A two-time Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year, Leipold went 37-33 over his six seasons at UB, with two division titles and three straight bowl appearances. His teams were 24-10 from 2018-20.
Linguist inherited a daunting challenge when he took over at Buffalo a week after Leipold's departure.
Not only did he have big shoes to fill to replicate or surpass Leipold's success, but Linguist also had to assemble a staff, re-recruit the current roster, and organize a recruiting plan before the June 1 recruiting period opened up.
While Linguist hired his staff relatively quickly, keeping his new Bulls players onboard has proven to be a much more arduous task.
Thirteen players - including the No. 2 quarterback, two top offensive linemen, and a starting safety - originally entered the NCAA Transfer Portal after Leipold left for Lawrence. Six of those entered after Linguist was hired.
On top of that, Buffalo lost star defensive end Malcolm Koonce (drafted 79th overall by the Las Vegas Raiders), record-breaking running back Jaret Patterson, No. 1 wide receiver Antonio Nunn, and All-American left tackle Kayode Awosika to the NFL.
The Bulls do return starting quarterback Kyle Vantrease, a 1,000-yard back in Kevin Marks Jr., and standout defensive end Taylor Riggins, but there are major holes to fill on both sides of the ball over the next 90 days before the season opener.
As mentioned, the transfer portal has not been kind to Buffalo since Leipold left.
The biggest hits have been to the offensive line, which lost its starting center and left guard to transfer after already losing its top left tackle to the NFL.
That means tackle Jake Fuzak and right guard Jack Klenk are the only returning starters on the o-line to block for Vantrease and Marks.
On defense, starting safety Tyrone Hill and defensive tackles Eddie Wilson, Tyreece Woods, DeShondrick Foxworth, and Lamonte McDougle have all transferred or entered the portal.
The good news was fellow starting safety Cory Gross Jr. withdrew from the transfer portal after initially planning on leaving. Gross ranked second on the team with 42 tackles in seven games last season.
Linebacker James Patterson is also back after recording a team-high 63 tackles in 2020. So is defensive tackle George Wolo, who had 27 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles as a freshman last year.
Offensive star: RB Kevin Marks Jr.
Having rushed for 2,621 yards and 28 touchdowns over his first three seasons, running back Kevin Marks Jr. has become the face of Buffalo's program entering his senior season.
Already ranked in the school's top 10 in career rushing yardage and touchdowns, the 6-foot, 205-pound native of Norfolk, Va., racked up 741 yards and seven scores in just seven games and two starts in 2020.
His 6.6 yards per carry last year finished second all-time for the Bulls, and he eclipsed 1,000 yards as a sophomore in 2019 (1,035).
Marks will be leaned on heavily this season to provide production and stability to Buffalo's new offense.
Defensive star: DE Taylor Riggins
Buffalo ended up with the nation's 35th-ranked defense last season, and that was with one of the best defensive ends in the MAC out for the year with an injury.
Taylor Riggins was a monster as a junior in 2019, ranking second in the conference with 8.5 sacks along with 50 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries, three fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble.
He earned first-team All-MAC honors for his efforts and was named to the 2020 Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award Preseason Watch Lists.
But an undisclosed offseason injury put his career and a potential jump to the NFL on pause for another year. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound team captain is now back and ready to pick up where he left off.
Spring surprise: WR Jovany Ruiz
A former walk-on who earned a scholarship at the end of last season, Jovany Ruiz had a modest 2020 with 20 catches for 192 yards and a touchdown while playing in seven games with three starts.
But the window of opportunity has opened wider than ever for the 6-foot, 195-pound native of Fredonia, N.Y.
Buffalo's passing game was awful last year, but Ruiz has developed about as much chemistry with Vantrease as any receiver on the roster.
He hauled in seven catches for 61 yards in the Bulls' win over Marshall in the Camellia Bowl, and he'll be looking to carry that over to this fall.
Biggest question: Can they revamp the offensive line?
It's not just that Buffalo lost four starters and a position coach from its offensive line this offseason.
It's also that it lost all of that from a unit that allowed just one sack in seven games and helped the Bulls rank second nationally in rushing offense with an average of 287.4 yards and 32 touchdowns.
New offensive line coach Matt Stansfield will have his work cut out for him this summer trying to revamp his group.
Awosika, a three-year starter at left tackle and FWAA All-American, is now in the NFL. First-team All-MAC center Mike Novitsky is in the portal, and top right guard Jacob Gall transferred to Baylor.
The good news is that Fuzak, who started all seven games at right tackle and earned second-team All-MAC honors, is back. So is Klenk, who started seven games at right guard in 2020.
But for a team that built one of the most productive offenses in the country around its offensive line last season, there might not be a bigger offseason concern facing the new UB staff.
Early outlook on Buffalo vs. Nebraska
Lenzi: "This is going to be a big challenge for Buffalo. They open the season against Wagner on a Thursday night. Wagner is an FCS program, and that's going to be where Buffalo kind of gets its reps and does a little bit of on-the-field chemistry lab work, if you will.
"Nebraska is going to be the first big challenge for them. Every year they try to play a P5 program, not just for the money but to find out where they stack up. They ran against Penn State pretty well in the first half a couple of years ago but just got driven down by Penn State's strength.
"Nebraska is a team that really is still looking for a lot of redemption. They've struggled to kind of grease the wheels a little bit under Scott Frost, and last year was just kind of a lost season for a lot of teams. So I have a feeling they'll be playing a very hungry, maybe even angry Nebraska team, and Buffalo is going to have to learn how to play quickly against a Big Ten team.
"(The Bulls) still return quite a bit from last year's team, but I really think they're going to find out a lot about themselves by playing Nebraska and finding out where they're going to need to improve."
Overall 2021 win-loss expectations
Lenzi: "My expectation for them right now? 8-4. Looking at their non-conference schedule, they're facing Wagner, Coastal Carolina, Nebraska, as well as Old Dominion.
"I think especially as you look at the MAC overall as well, Miami of Ohio is probably going to be a tough team to play against. That's probably their biggest rival. And I think Ohio - it always seems to be Buffalo and Ohio going neck-and-neck for the MAC East title over the last couple of years. So that's a team that could be a formidable opponent.
"Then Northern Illinois, I think they're going to be the sleeper. And they have Ball State, the team that beat them in the MAC Championship last year.
"So I think there's going to be a little bit more parity in the MAC this season, and Buffalo is going to have to compensate for its losses. Jaret Patterson literally and figuratively carried the team last year. They don't have that now. They're going to have to find a way to get more balance on offense as well."