UB Bulls, Lance Leipold kick off season against FCS Albany


During his eight-year stint as head coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Lance Leipold went 8-0 in season openers, en route to a 109-6 record and six national championships at the Division-III level.

On Saturday, Leipold looks to preserve his perfect opening day record with a victory over Albany at UB Stadium.

After a spring game, endless two-a-days, the final tune-ups and preseason predictions and expectations, the football team is finally ready to start the 2015 season – none more anxious than Leipold, the Bulls first-year head coach.

“We’re finally getting to do what we’re excited to do,” Leipold said. “It’s time to put it to the test to see what we have to get done and we’re excited for this season.”

The Great Danes, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team, finished with a 7-5 overall record last season. Leipold discussed the “FBS vs. FCS” factor with the media earlier this week. Just last season, the Bulls had to pull out a close victory over FCS Duquesne in the season opener – a game that Buffalo may have overlooked because the FCS is a level below the Bulls’ Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level.

“Albany is going to be a team that comes in here excited,” Leipold said. “They’re going to be up to play a school at the FBS level. We’re all in the same state, so that’ll probably add something to the game and, like us, they’re probably tired of lining up against themselves and hitting themselves, so it’s going to be a good game for that alone.”

Heading into his first season as head coach, Leipold is taking over for Jeff Quinn, who was fired midseason following a 37-27 loss to Eastern Michigan. The Bulls finished last season with a 5-6 record and possessed one of the worst defenses in the Mid-American Conference. They revamped the entire coaching staff with the exception of running backs coach Matt Simon.

Changes on the coaching staff are paired with new schemes on the field. The Bulls are moving to a multiple pro-style offense under new offensive coordinator Andrew Kotelnicki. The offense is expected to be “more up-tempo” and expects more shorter, quicker passes, while being able to set up long passes when need be.

Joe Licata said he and fellow senior quarterback Tony Daniel were excited heading into the season, thanks to how well they grasped the offense in camp.

“We have a ton of smart guys on offense,” Licata said. “We’ve learned a lot in a short amount of time that we’ve been with them. Tony and I were just talking about the offense. This is the best we’ve felt about the system in our previous five years here. I feel ready and confident and I think the players are confident in our coaching staff.”

Licata is just one of the many players returning on offense. Senior running back Anthone Taylor is back after finishing second in the conference in rushing (1,403 yards) and wide receiver Ron Willoughby also experienced a breakout season with 771 yards and 10 touchdown grabs.

Whereas the Bulls return their quarterback and most skill position players, Albany is dealing with some turnover. The Great Danes had productive seasons on offense from senior quarterback Will Fiacchi and senior running back Omar Osbourne, but both have graduated. Sophomore D.J. Crook, who was a backup at Penn State last year, will be the starting QB.

The offensive line may be the Bulls’ Achilles’ heel. Buffalo is set to replace three starters from ‘the blindside’ who graduated last year. Although unproven and downgraded, Licata said he thinks a strong season is ahead for the unit.

And with the new schemes – which Licata has grown a liking to – the senior quarterback is ready to “make defenses uncomfortable.”

“We’ve really embraced what the coaches put in place,” Licata said. “We have some good tight ends, our running backs are important and we have all kinds of receivers – some little guys who can run fast and some tall guys that can take the top off the defense.”

For all the returning players on the offense, the Bulls are looking at a new rotation of players in a new scheme on the defensive side of the ball. After years of using the 3-3-5-defensive scheme under Quinn, the Bulls are making a drastic change, switching to a 4-3 defense under Leipold, concentrating on the run defense more than the passing game.

The defense is also very young, with just three seniors in place as a starter and several underclassmen riddling the defensive line. The Bulls are hoping to improve their overall defensive totals, including their scoring defense, as the Bulls finished ninth in the conference at 31.5 points per game allowed.

Unlike Buffalo, most of last year’s Albany defense returns. The Great Danes are bringing back most of their defensive talent from last year, including their leading tackler in linebacker Michael Nicastro and interceptions leader in safety Kyle Sakowski.

Just a few days before his first game coaching Division I, Leipold said wins and losses are part of barometer of success in his first season, but also admitted that the answer may change as he continues to gain experience on the D-I level.

“If we can continue to hit daily improvement, I think we’ll see the improvement,” Leipold said. “If that is in wins and losses right away, I look forward to midseason, a year from now, knowing who we’re going against will and answering these questions better.”

Prior to the game on Saturday, UB will kick off its third annual Concert Tailgate Series with Thompson Square, paired with a pregame student tailgate in the Baird Point parking lot. The first 2,000 students to the game will receive free blue tank tops for a “blue-out.”

Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Quentin Haynes is a co-senior sports editor and can be reached at quentin.haynes@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Haynes_Spectrum