UB football is looking for the next go-to wide receiver
Several players vying to replace graduated Willoughby as Bulls’ No. 1 receiver
When UB all-time receiving touchdown leader Alex Neutz graduated two years ago, no one was quite sure who was going to replace him as the Buffalo football team’s No. 1 wide receiver.
It wasn’t until a previously unknown player named Ron Willoughby exploded for 10 catches, more than 130 yards and two touchdowns in Buffalo’s 2014 season-opener that the team had any idea who its next go-to guy would be.
With Willoughby now having graduated, the Bulls seem to be going for a similar approach this offseason: give every receiver an equal opportunity through the grind of the spring and summer and see who emerges once the season kicks off in September.
“We’re not really slotting anyone in anywhere right now,” said associate head coach and wide receivers coach Rob Ianello. “We’re gonna have an open competition of playing time that will continue through the fall.”
The Bulls’ full-contact practice at UB Stadium this past Saturday ran 40 minutes longer than expected as the team tries to get a better sense of its players, especially its wide receivers. The Bulls have several receivers rising through the ranks but it’s still unclear who will replace Willoughby as Buffalo’s No. 1 wideout – a position that becomes all the more important with three unproven quarterbacks battling for the No. 1 spot under center.
Following the graduation of Willoughby, rising senior Marcus McGill seems like a clear favorite to step up and be the team’s top guy in 2016. McGill is Buffalo’s top returning wide receiver in terms of yardage and receptions.
He very well could still be the guy, but Ianello made it clear that McGill is going to have to earn it. McGill was held out of Saturday’s practice for undisclosed reasons and he was not made available to members of the media after practice.
“He’s just got a little deal,” Ianello said. “He’s fine, he’ll be fine. He’ll be out there practicing next week. We just held him out for a couple of days.”
Whether his absence was injury-related or not, Ianello still seems to be challenging McGill to earn his keep and show necessary development in his senior season. McGill accumulated 50 catches for 581 yards and four touchdowns while playing in all 12 games this past season.
“He’s still got a lot of improvement to make,” Ianello said. “I need him to attack the ball better. I need him to be crisper in his route running.”
Ianello feels the wide open state of the receiver position this year will allow him to keep fresh legs on the field more often and throwing out more combinations of guys throughout the course of the game than he did last season. One beneficiary of that could be rising junior wide receiver Jacob Martinez, who appears primed for a bigger, more versatile role in his junior season.
Martinez was used mostly in the slot in his first two seasons, but this year it appears he’ll also get a chance to play on the outside in addition to the slot. Martinez, a former high school
quarterback, has game-changing speed and is hoping this could be the year he finally puts it all together as a wide receiver. With the uncertain state of the Bulls quarterback position at the moment, Martinez is preparing himself for anything.
“Different QBs throw the ball a little differently,” Martinez said. “They have a little bit different tendencies, so you kind of got to know where they’re at … You just gotta work with them, bring them along with you and get on their good side.”
Coming into his second season on the team, rising junior wide receiver Collin Lisa is preparing himself to play a lot of snaps in the slot, just like he did last year. He caught 31 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns last season after transferring from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Lisa spent much of the offseason working on his blocking, an essential skill for any slot receiver. It’s an underrated task, but it’s one of the most important parts of the job right up there with catching the ball a key to getting on the field.
Lisa knows that.
“You really gotta work leverage,” Lisa said. “You gotta work the techniques coach teaches us, you gotta keep your feet going. If you understand what the coverage is and where they’re rolling to and what not, it’ll make your job a lot easier.”
Rising senior Malcolm Robinson and rising sophomore Brandon Smiley also figure to be in the wide receiver mix for Buffalo. There are plenty of options to choose from to create a receiving core, but Ianello may opt for the young guns.
If freshman wide receiver K.J. Osborn continues to play as well as he did at practice Saturday, he could be in line for more playing time than expected. He left his teammates in awe several times throughout the practice by making some great catches in traffic.
“We’ll see what his role is,” Ianello said. “This was a good thing to see in a scrimmage situation, coaches off the field. To the eye, he made some plays today on tape, and he’s continued to get better.”
Next week’s Blue and White game will help settle position battles, especially the deep-rooted wide receiver position.
The Blue and White game will take place at UB Stadium on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m.
Michael Akelson is the assistant sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com.