Depth and experience makes UB Bulls receiving core one of team's best units
Last season, the Buffalo football team witnessed a breakout season from junior wide receiver Ron Willoughby and consistent production from senior wide receiver Devon Hughes. With Hughes graduated, the Bulls must replace the No. 2 receiver.
If the spring football season has been any indication though, that may not be very difficult.
“We have a hard working group of guys with experience,” said head coach Lance Leipold. “At this point, we’re just moving them around to see where they can be best at … There’s a ton of bodies out there right now, so we’ll be able to rotate them and have them all play well.”
The leading returning receiver is Willoughby. Last season, the “Willoughbeast” had a breakout season and finished with a team-high 50 receptions, 771 yards andnine touchdown catches. Associate head coach and wide receivers coach Rob Ianello called Willoughby “a good place to start” for the receiving core and said having his size and speed will give the Bulls a “No. 1 receiver.”
Willoughby said with the experience at the position and the additional receiver drills in practice, the receivers are getting better every week.
“We’re working hard every single day with the coaches and we’re seeing results,” Willoughby said. “Ianello is giving us some awesome tips and working in a ton of different receiver drills. He’s shown us some new drills and we love it. Every little drill is making us better in the long run and we love it.”
After Saturday’s annual Blue-White spring game, the No. 2 receiver could be senior wide receiver Marcus McGill. McGill finished with three receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown in the scrimmage.
He also received positive comments from his head coach. Leipold said McGill is a “really talented guy” after the game and the coaching staff will look to find an appropriate role for him, whether he plays as an inside or outside receiver.
The Bulls also have sophomore Jacob Martinez, who recorded 28 receptions, 280 yards and three touchdowns from the slot receiver position as a freshman last season.
In the multiple pro-style offense, the Bulls can operate with two receiver sets, shotgun formation with four receivers and spread packages, which results in as many as five receivers on the field at the same time.
During spring practices, Ianello has experimented with various receiver drills and different placement for all receivers and tight ends on the roster. He said by doing so, it “creates depth” and allows the coaching staff to know the capabilities of each player at each various location.
“It’s about creating depth and moving people around to see who works best where,” Ianello said. “From there, we’re hoping to have depth from each area, creating places where each receiver can work from. We’re still in the growth process of that, hoping that we can create a line of players that we can place in any area and allow them to make plays.”
The tight end position is another experienced area on the team. The top two players on the depth chart are senior Matt Wieser and junior Mason Schreck. Both Wieser and Schreck recorded double-digit receptions last season and Leipold said the offensive staff is excited to use both as pass catchers in the middle of the field.
Wieser said the new plays in practice have allowed the Bulls to be more productive and expressed excitement in learning the system.
“It’s been a lot of work, but we’re all working very hard,” Wieser said. “Learning a new system is hard, but three weeks down we’re learning and we’re excited. Our goal is to bother defenses and put them in uncomfortable positions with our up-tempo play and different looks.”
In the Blue-White game, the Bulls mostly stayed with three receiver sets, allowing them to play their tight ends. In playing three receivers and one tight end, the Bulls had the option to both throw the ball downfield and run the ball with a tight end staying in as an additional blocker.
Ianello said the team’s goal is to create “complete receivers.” He says he wants his receivers to be able to not only catch the ball and make plays, but also be able to block, run great routes, excel at getting out of breaks and getting yards after the catch.
Despite the team’s excitement about the receivers and tight ends, Leipold reiterated the team’s goal is to have balance on the offensive end.
“Balance will always be our goal," Leipold said. “We’re going play games in November … the weather changes and get a bit colder. We have to be able to run the football. It’s always important to get the ball on the outside and in playmakers’ hands, but we want balance.”
Heading into the season, Ianello said the team has one goal and one mindset.
“We’re expecting to be the hardest working, toughest group on the field,” Ianello said. “Working hard and being able to succeed when our numbers are called. We’re already working hard and showing that in practice and I expect it to translate over to games this fall.”
Jordan Grossman contributed reporting to this story.
Quentin Haynes is a senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org