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Linebackers and length focal points of UB football’s 2016 recruiting class

Bulls announce 2016 class during National Signing Day

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Lance Leipold never expected to build the UB football program from the ground up in his first year on the job. He didn’t know his personnel, the Mid-American Conference or even the skill level of many opponents.

He’s still learning, but at least he has a better idea of how to build his quintessential program.

“I don’t believe in quick fixes,” Leipold said. “I think when you build a program you’re going to build it for the long run and that is always our goal.”

Leipold announced his 15-player recruiting class, consisting of seven offensive players, seven defensive players and a punter, at Alumni Arena on National Signing Day Wednesday. The 15 players join seven first-year players that have previously joined the program in January, including Iowa State transfer quarterback Grant Rohach.

Leipold’s main focus was linebackers. Even though the linebacker position was one of the best units on the team this past season, Buffalo graduated two starters in Nick Gilbo and Okezie Alozie. Buffalo did not bring in any linebackers from the 2015 recruiting class.

Leipold made sure to not make that error again. Buffalo has commits from a total of five linebackers, four of whom signed letters of intent on National Signing Day.

Headlining the group is Khalil Hodge, a junior college transfer from Stockton, California that retroactively signed his letter of intent on Dec. 16, 2015. He is a jack-of-all-trades middle linebacker that was a standout in both high school and junior college.

Another linebacker to watch for is freshman Matt Otwinowski. He is a linebacker built like a defensive end at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds. His standout accolades from high school like Duneland Athletic Conference MVP and All-Area First Team this past season.

Even though he may be built like a defensive lineman, he moves like a linebacker.

“We wanted to add some size to the linebacker position and add more length to the program as a whole,” Leipold said. “We’re not going to substitute what we feel as talent or speed to get more height in those positions.”

With junior Brandon Berry being the only returning starting linebacker from last season, current players in the program like junior linebacker Jarrett Franklin, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, or a first-year player will fill the two remaining vacancies.

“Yes, we lost two starters, but I think we added an extra one back,” Leipold said about Franklin. “He’s a guy that started games in this conference.”

Leipold also mentioned he wanted more depth at linebacker because of their usage of the trio and the need for them on special teams. Alozie, Gilbo and Berry played an estimated 95 – 99 percent of defensive snaps last season, which resulted in inadequate special teams play.

Linebacker isn’t the only position with a vacancy.

Buffalo is in a rare position where its starting quarterback, Joe Licata, and primary backup, Tony Daniel, have both graduated.

Buffalo lost out on quarterback commit Max Bortenschlager, who opted to go to Maryland instead this week, but have brought in Rohach, a transfer from Iowa State in the Big 12 Conference, for his final year of NCAA eligibility. Rohach is the favored quarterback to win the job due to his experience and the inexperience of who is on the roster.

It also gives the Buffalo coaches ample time to mold its potential quarterback of the future.

In a rare recruiting tactic, the Bulls brought in a second quarterback in Canadian 6-foot-6 freshman Dominic Johnson. Johnson had the option to remain in Canada and stay at his prep school, but Buffalo convinced him to prematurely join the program.

There was also a risk in losing him had he not committed.

“He’s a talented athlete who’s maybe raw at this time,” Leipold said. “He had options of prep schooling and doing things. He may have been in the 2017 class. We decided he’s a guy that if a lot more people would have known about I think the guy would have blown up.”

Rob Ianello, Buffalo’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator said Johnson is “raw, but he has tremendous upside as he enters into college, gets on a weight program, learns the system and starts playing that system all the time.”

Buffalo also snagged one of the best running backs in the state of Georgia.

Incoming freshman Kameron Pickett, who was a top-10 running back in Georgia, has received comparisons to former Bulls running back James Starks for his ground-and-pound running style. He averaged five yards per carry last season.

He turned down offers from UConn and New Mexico among other programs to come play in Buffalo.

The Bulls also added two standout defensive backs in Roy Baker and Tyrone Hill, both incoming freshmen. Both are man-to-man, physical defenders who have experience at both cornerback and safety.

They’re also perfect for Buffalo’s plan to bring “length” to the program. Baker and Hill are both 6-foot-2 and fit with the Bulls’ plan to bring in taller defenders to guard the taller opposing wide receivers.

“The first think that you would notice maybe compared to what’s presently in our program, is more length at the corner position,” Leipold said. “When you look at some of the people we’re lining up against and what happens sometimes at wide receiver, the height, the people throwing the ball up.”

All of the moves were strategically made to set up Buffalo for success for next season, as well as the future. With five linebackers, four offensive linemen and four defensive backs brought in, Buffalo hopes it has possible stability at the positions that lacked depth the past couple of years.

Both Leipold, and Athletic Director Allen Greene, sad they are confident with the state of the football program for the distant future.

“One of the things [Leipold] is really good at is that he’s not thinking too far ahead,” Greene said. “I tend to agree with him in the fact that we’re trying to build a program and not just build a team. He’s being very strategic about who he’s going after.”

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.


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