Young players shine in annual Blue-White scrimmage
Alex Neutz, Fred Lee and Branden Oliver.
Those three names should be familiar to Bulls fans. Last season, the trio combined for 32 of the Bulls' 46 offensive touchdowns. Neutz and Oliver hold program records.
Now, let's try a new trio of names.
Jacob Martinez, Jordan Johnson and Marcus McGill.
The spring game offers many challenges for reporters when it comes to game coverage but the most prevalent is the frantic search through the roster every time there's an unfamiliar player who makes a play. Saturday's spring game was an extreme exercise in roster scanning.
But that's a good thing for the Bulls. After graduating playmakers at nearly every position on both sides of the ball, it isn't the returning players head coach Jeff Quinn and company should be worried about, it's the players stepping into larger roles that will dictate this team's success in 2014.
Of the three of names I just mentioned, one has seen significant playing time. Johnson, a running back, redshirted two seasons ago before sitting out last season with an injury; Martinez, a wide receiver, was a true freshman this last season and he didn't see much playing time on the veteran-heavy roster; and McGill, also a wide receiver, spent a lot of time on special teams in 2012 as a long snapper.
Johnson was arguably the most impressive player on the field Saturday. He rushed 17 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns. He showed the ability to move the pile, break big runs outside and burst through the line and into the open field.
On his second touchdown run of the day, Johnson found a hole and broke through into daylight. No one could catch him.
"I knew that we were looking for a big day out of him," Quinn said. "He rose to the occasion. Not only did he run the ball well, but I saw him get in there and make some key blocks, running the proper routes, things of that nature. I think he's coming along quite well."
Nothing resembles the challenges the Bulls face this season quite like the receiving corp. Neutz and Lee combined for more than half of the Bulls' receiving yards last year and there are only three returning players who have caught a touchdown for Buffalo.
Quinn recognized the lack of experience and star power on his roster coming into spring practice, so he took the spring game as an opportunity test the young receivers.
The young Bulls made a good first impression.
"Last year was basically Alex Neutz and Freddy Lee," Quinn said. "This year there are a lot more guys out there. So they are getting their opportunities but it's more about their routes, and their depth and them making the proper cuts."
Even with sophomore quarterback Joe Licata sitting while he recovers from an offseason hip surgery, there was a noticeably bigger emphasis on the passing game. And everyone stepped up. Sophomore Tony Daniel and freshman Collin Michael both showed the ability to run the offense and complete difficult passes.
As I mentioned earlier, Quinn didn't let either quarterback lean on the running game. The quarterbacks responded by spreading the ball around, consistently targeting a number of different players.
Quinn isn't concerned that Licata hasn't had a chance to practice with the younger receivers yet. According to Quinn, as long as the receivers run their routes correctly, Licata will be able to get the ball to them. And they will have an opportunity to work on timing over the summer.
"I certainly believe that there are a multitude of different receivers that can step up, which is good for a quarterback," Quinn said. "You're not going to be locked into one guy or two guys, you're going to have the ability to spread the ball around to guys that are going to be where they are supposed to be."
The Bulls are going to need all those receivers to emerge if they want to offense to step up this season. The first-team defense looked better than the first-team offense Saturday. Licata's absence can account for part of that, but the offense has a lot of skilled players to replace, and they'll need contributions from various players to match last season's production.