Back to Football 101: UB Linebackers adjust to new defensive scheme, optimistic about next season

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Junior linebacker Jarrett Franklin spent his first two seasons in a 3-3-5 defensive system, but is set to begin life in a 4-3 defense this season under new head coach Lance Leipold.

He said it’s like going back to Football 101.

Leipold implemented a 4-3-4 defense during the spring football season. The system consists of four linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs and gets rid of the 3-3-5 defense the team ran under former head coach Jeff Quinn. The 4-3 defense requires much more preparation and studying than the 3-3-5 and has been “a big change” to the defense, according to Franklin.

“With the 3-3, we kept it simple,” Franklin said. “We basically only had one simple key … Now, it’s more of a class. First, you start at Football 101. Now, we’re at 201. It’s a big jump. But you almost have to study it like another class. You need to know not just what you’re doing, but what everyone is doing around you.”

The 3-3-5 system required Buffalo’s defensive backs to often play in the box as linebackers. The Bulls’ defense struggled as a unit last season, giving up 31.5 points per game and only allowing less than 20 points in a game once.

Leipold said the team is slowly learning the new system and said although it’s a process he’s “pleased where it’s headed.”

“A lot of guys played in the 3-3-5. I don’t know all of the intricacies of the defense, but a lot of guys still had to come down and play at the second level,” Leipold said. “It’s different in ways, but it will be similar as well.”

Franklin admitted the 4-3 system is hard to understand and he has to study much more than under the old system. He said it’s harder to understand because every player has to know what every other player is responsible for.

“We have to know the defensive scheme,” Franklin said. “Instead of knowing our one position, we have to know, ‘OK, the defensive line is doing this and the D-backs are doing that.’ Now, we have a better understanding of what’s going on around us.”

The change in defense comes as Buffalo loses two of its starting linebackers in middle linebacker Lee Skinner and outside linebacker Jake Stockman to graduation.

Skinner finished with a team-high 96 tackles last season and was second on the team with 3.5 sacks. Skinner played the “Mike” position, which is considered the quarterback of the defense. Stockman finished last season with 57 tackles and played in every game for the Bulls.

With Skinner gone, the team is still deciding who will fill the “Mike” position, but all signs point toward senior Nick Gilbo. The fourth-year linebacker played in all 11 games last season, accumulating 37 tackles and 1.5 sacks and returning one fumble for a touchdown. Franklin said he admires Gilbo’s work ethic and the effort he has to put in at the middle linebacker position.

“He’s the quarterback of the defense,” Franklin said. “You’re coordinating everything and you have to make a lot of checks. He’s really taking it by the reigns. I feel really confident when he’s out there. If someone thinks I have to study my position a lot, he has to study his three times more.”

Franklin expects to assume his position at outside linebacker after he recovers from a minor back injury he sustained during a workout. After consulting with doctors, he is not concerned about the injury and is expected to be ready for the season.

That outside linebacker position once belonged to Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack, who was selected No. 5 overall in last year’s NFL Draft. Leipold acknowledged players like Mack “don’t always come around that often” but knows there are multiple linebackers that learned under him.

Senior Okezie Alozie, who is expected to play as a full-time linebacker this season, is one of the linebackers that learned under Mack. Last season, he spent most of his time as a defensive back, but Leipold liked his explosiveness as a linebacker in the new defensive system.

While the players admit the scheme is hard to learn, Franklin said it made them better as a group.

“We see it as a challenge,” Franklin said. “Moving forward, it’s helped us bond more as a team. We actually have to study. We can ask questions to the safeties about what to do in certain situations. We’ve become more football intelligent and it will really help during the fall.”

Franklin said he wants the linebackers to play with more confidence heading into the season, but said it will come with time and knowledge of the new system.

“It’s been something we’ve been struggling with, but after seeing us practice during spring ball, we’re able to play with more confidence when we know what’s going on around us,” Franklin said.

The team will not practice for the rest of the spring and will meet up again in July for summer workouts. The season will begin on Sept. 5 when the Bulls take on Albany at UB Stadium.

Jordan Grossman is a senior sports editor and can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com