UB's Triplets: Joe Licata, Anthone Taylor and Ron Willoughby
Senior trio provides offense stability in transition year
The term ‘The Triplets’ first rose to popularity describing the Super Bowl-winning Dallas Cowboys’ trio of quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin in the ’90s.
The Buffalo football team, which partially mimics the Cowboys’ high-powered offense, has their own set of ‘triplets.’ Buffalo will rely on them as it transitions to a new offensive scheme under first-year head coach Lance Leipold and to start a winning culture.
The Bulls have three seniors – quarterback Joe Licata, running back Anthone Taylor and wide receiver Ron Willoughby – who have all been named to national watch lists for their positions and give Buffalo a dynamic trio of seniors that could possibly propel the team through the season.
“We have to show them how we want things to be done, how we want the future of the team to go,” Taylor said. “We don’t look at it as more added expectations, [but more] as having a new opportunity to start a tradition, a different legacy here.”
The trio’s success starts with the quarterback. Licata, Buffalo’s all-time passing touchdown leader, is coming off a career-best season but will be adjusting to new terminology and coaching staff for his senior season. He may be a bit further behind than he’d like to, considering he missed all of spring practice with a hip injury.
Despite missing time on the field, Licata said he didn’t miss time off the turf, spending ample time in the film and meeting rooms.
“I got to sit through all the meetings throughout the spring and I got to learn the offense,” Licata said. “But getting down to executing the offense is a little bit different than seeing it. So this first week and a half of practice [this summer] has really helped me … in my development of learning the offense and making it go smoothly.”
Licata will at least have the advantage of familiar faces to throw the ball to. Buffalo returns almost every wide receiver and tight end from last year, including wide receivers Jacob Martinez, Marcus McGill, Malcolm Robinson and tight end Matt Weiser. The Bulls also have newcomer Collin Lisa – a wide receiver transfer from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
But Licata’s favorite target will again be his roommate and one-third of the triplets: Willoughby.
The ‘Willough-beast,” as his teammates call him, burst onto the scene last year with 50 catches, 771 yards and nine touchdowns after making just three total catches in his first two seasons. Licata said he has a lot of faith in Willoughby – which comes from the pair’s chemistry and Willoughby’s leaping ability.
Willoughby singles out his touchdown grab against Central Michigan last year as an example of the pair’s trust in one another.
Licata admits he shouldn’t have thrown the ball to Willoughby, who was tightly covered by Chippewa defenders in the end zone, but he still did. Willoughby used his leaping ability and 6-foot-4 frame to pull the ball down for a 28-yard touchdown before halftime.
“When you bond with a teammate and you’re with them for so long, it’s a different kind of trust,” Willoughby said. “When he throws the ball he can trust you to go get it and not make him wrong. You’re always trying to make him right.”
Licata and Willoughby will have more opportunities to connect on through-the-air touchdowns if Taylor continues his program record-breaking pace on the ground.
Like Willoughby, Taylor emerged last season after primarily playing a backup role his first two seasons. He quickly put any discussion of the Bulls having a running back by committee to rest after he ran for more than 200 yards in two straight games and cemented his place as a workhorse back. At one point last season, Taylor was in the top five for rushing yards in the nation.
Taylor ran for 11 touchdowns and 1,400 yards – good for second all-time in Buffalo history. His 120.3 rushing yards per game rank first all-time.
He’ll be playing behind a less experienced offensive line this season, after the Bulls graduated three starters. He says the group may be inexperienced but is fundamentally sound and he’s learning Leipold’s new system along with them.
“It’s a learning experience for everybody but at the same time we’ve been astute learners and we’ve been able to take multiple techniques and execute them,” Taylor said.
He’ll at least have an experienced signal caller directing that line. Licata is confident he knows the right time to audibly run a plan – when Taylor is getting hot – and when to opt to a pass play – when he and Willoughby are getting into a rhythm. The three seniors have formed a close bond since joining the program as redshirt freshmen in 2011.
“We all love to make plays, love football and hanging out,” Willoughby said. “Once you get that bond off the field, it kind of helps you on the field.”
Taylor said off the field, the three like to joke around and “let their hair down.” But on the field, it’s all business. They don’t like to mess up – they want to execute perfectly. Their relationship off the field helps them to communicate to each other when they do slip up, though. It’s important they hold each other accountable.
“If we make a mistake in practice and one of us notices it on film, we have the relationship where we can talk to each other,” Taylor said. “So when we get back on the field, we’re working on a higher level than the last time we were on the field.”
These attributes of leadership could be a constant between a young team with a first-year coaching staff. But they aren’t worried about the transition. These triplets have learned from some of the best players to ever don a Bulls uniform.
Licata frequently stays in touch with the man he surpassed for Buffalo’s all-time passing touchdown record: MAC Champion quarterback Drew Willy. San Diego chargers running back Branden Oliver – Taylor’s mentor and friend - regularly text Bible verses to each other. Oliver and Taylor played with each other for two years at Buffalo. Willoughby is nearly a clone of Buffalo’s all-time leader receiving touchdown leader and former teammate Alex Neutz and is often called ‘Neutzy Jr.’ by the team.
“There’s certain leadership skills they’ve learned from those guys,” Licata said.
Licata said he, Taylor and Willoughby haven’t exactly talked about setting an example for the rest of the team and meeting the expectations on themselves. He says it’s just kind of assumed.
Licata’s hunger to win a MAC championship is evident when you to speak to him. He’s a Buffalo born kid that grew up watching the Bills and Sabres and chose to come to UB so he could bring a championship home to Buffalo.
He may not bring Buffalo one directly – a brand new coaching staff and a young defense may hold the Bulls back from holding up a trophy on Ford Field this year. But how ‘the triplets’ perform and lead this season might set a precedent for the Leipold era that will go behind their exits from the program.
The triplets’ last season together may go a long way in establishing if Buffalo wins a championship even after they graduate.