UB Bulls look into new personnel, scheme on defense in 2015
What a difference two years makes.
Anyone that remotely followed the football team during its successful 2013 campaign would say it was the team’s defense that led the successful brigade. Headlined by current Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack, the Buffalo ‘D’ ranked second in the Mid-American Conference in total defense, finished in the top five for every defensive category and helped lead the team to an 8-5 record and a postseason bowl appearance.
Last season, the Bulls allowed 31.5 points per game, 397.7 total yards per game and 46 total touchdowns in 11 games. As a result, the Bulls finished with a 5-6 record, highlighted by four defeats of eight points or less.
It’s no surprise this year’s version of the defense has many question marks, loaded with new faces and the obstacle of the unexpected after the departure of many fixtures. But a new coaching regime poses an opportunity to revamp an inexperienced defense and turn Buffalo into contenders on both sides of the ball.
When UB Athletics fired former head coach Jeff Quinn last year, his defensive scheme went with him. After years of running the 3-3-5 defense, the Bulls are now switching to a 4-3 defense under new head coach Lance Leipold.
The area experiencing the most significant change is the defensive line. The transition from the 3-3-5 to the 4-3 means there will be an additional defensive lineman on the field and some of last season’s defensive ends will move into the middle to play tackle. Two players in particular – juniors Max Perisse and Brandon Crawford will make the switch.
Crawford said the change on the defensive line and the scheme should allow more success this upcoming season.
“I know that I feel more comfortable in this defense and moving from the outside at the three-tech position to the inside should help my game,” Crawford said. “I definitely think with the new defensive scheme … it should open us to more success this year.”
Defensive coordinator Brian Borland, who also doubles as the cornerbacks coach, has personally worked with the secondary as both the cornerbacks and safeties make adjustments in the new scheme. One player that has transitioned to a leadership role is senior cornerback Marqus Baker. After missing most of last season with an illness, Baker said the coaching change and revamped scheme could help bring Buffalo back to defensive prominence.
Baker said the ability to “mix it up” on defense should help with creating turnover and create more plays this season.
“In this scheme, there’s time we can show a look and play a different coverage,” Baker said. “We can show cover two and play cover four. There are a ton of different things we can do ... This defense, I feel like it’s a lot more efficient and puts players in position to make more plays.”
Although the Bulls ranked fifth in the league in pass defense last season, they struggled to force turnovers with just two interceptions all season. When it comes to forcing turnovers, Borland said the way to create them is to have a balanced, cohesive unit from the defensive line to the secondary.
“In order to force turnovers, we have to multiple things on the defensive end,” Borland said. “Putting pressure on the offense, whether by blitzing and creating pressure with either six or seven guys, or even four. Being dominant and physical is crucial to forcing and creating turnovers.”
In the middle of the defense stand the linebackers. Last season, the Bulls aimed to get most of their pressure from that position. This year, the linebackers are still expected to produce pressure and some sacks, but they also have more duties in coverage in the new scheme.
Junior linebacker Jarrett Franklin is expected to be one of the key players in the defense, but surrounding him are players new to the position. Seniors Okezie Alozie and Brandon Berry are moving from the secondary to the linebacking core this season. Senior Nick Gilbo, a smart and elusive player, was chosen to play the middle, which is responsible for defensive signal calling.
Albeit a new unit, it’s possible the Bulls’ linebacking core could be one of the most effective units on the team.
Yet everything is easier said than done. A new scheme comes with a lot of learning as well. Linebackers coach Chris Simpson said his players would have to be open to learning new plays and remembering the system.
“Our guys are going to have to know everything,” Simpson said. “They’ll need to know what’s going on in front of them what’s going on behind them and how they’ll fit in between that. Our guys will have to do everything from holding blocks, making tackles and being active in coverage.”
On the outside, the Bulls are rotating several players from the linebacker position to the defensive end position in an effort to get to the quarterback. Last year, the Bulls finished with 25 sacks – good enough for sixth in the conference.
Defensive line coach Tim Edwards said only positive things about his line, including that he believes the team has 10 players who can play effectively. The rotation of defensive lineman will be important heading into this upcoming season.
“We have a ton of excitement and a ton of energy,” Edwards said. “With the switching of position with some guys, we have some more athleticism with some guys on the outside. The more guys we have available to rotate, the better our guys will play. In the end, we want four guys who can get to the quarterback and bother running backs.”
Changes on all three levels of the defense could result in time needed, but after practices and the development of the players, Borland said the defense is in position to succeed and create pressure this season.
“We’ve been working hard all summer,” Borland said. “The players have been working hard and we still have some players adjusting and working in the scheme, we’re ready for the start of the season and we want to be a strong, active defense that can make plays in the backfield, make plays with our secondary and be physical.”