After capping off the 2020 season with a 17-10 victory over Marshall in the Camellia Bowl, UB football returned to the field for the first day of spring practice Monday morning.
Monday’s practice was the first of 15 scheduled dual-purpose spring ball sessions that serve as an opportunity for the younger players to showcase their talents and the upperclassmen and coaches to “get back into the swing of things” ahead of the 2021 season.
Lance Leipold, who is starting his seventh season as the team’s head coach, said he was impressed by his group’s energy Monday, even as they were limited to a helmet-only practice regimen.
“I thought it went well, great energy, we have some new guys out there going through their first college practice so [they] can see the veterans,” Leipold said. “It’s a sport where you do so much training and you only have so many opportunities to go out and do it, especially in the spring. I really like where we’re at and obviously it’s a helmet-only practice, so it’s a start.”
The first day of practice marks the first time players have been on the field together since December’s bowl win. Despite losing some key contributors to graduation and the NFL Draft, including star running back Jaret Patterson, spirits are high heading into the 2021 campaign.
“Anytime you come to college to play football and anytime you get to go 11-on-11 it’s a blessing. Getting back in the swing of things where you have practices and it’s all scheduled out, structured, it’s super nice,” senior quarterback Kyle Vantrease said. “To be able to see the guys back in their element, smiling, running around, having a good time, it was awesome for me and for everyone else.”
The early days of spring practice focus more on the basics of positioning and individual technique. The different offensive and defensive philosophies will be introduced to the new players in subsequent practices.
Leipold and his staff are limited by helmet-only practices, so they say they want to develop solid fundamentals before overwhelming players with complex concepts like situational play calls and audibles.
“I think just kind of reacclimating ourselves to being out there [is important], fundamentals are always going to be the biggest [focus], especially in helmet only practices,” Leipold said. “Just getting back to the practice habits that we want to have as a program and then gravitate towards our installation and adding to things and then be ready to go a little bit more toward competitive practices toward the weekend.”
As the Bulls turn the page on the 2020 season, they will have to fill some pretty big shoes.
Six players from last year’s team declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, including Patterson, wide receiver Antonio Nunn, offensive tackle Kayode Awosika and 2019 MAC sack leader Malcolm Koonce.
The Bulls will need players who can step into these holes and learn on the fly.
“We do like to go fast. We do like to have two huddles on the offensive side of things so that we can rapid-fire with a lot of reps,” Leipold said. “We’re getting guys opportunities to get on film to be evaluated. And with that we’re hopefully building depth, finding guys to step in and replace people.”
UB has 22 freshmen on this year’s roster, so spring practices present an opportunity for the younger players to showcase their individual talents and lean on upperclassmen for guidance.
“I just want to see the young guys come in and see what they have to offer and how can I help them as a leader to make them get better every day throughout the 15 practices that we have,” senior linebacker James Patterson, Jaret’s twin, said. “[Spring ball] really gets you to show the coaches what you have to offer and it’s an evaluation every day.”
The team’s various departures have thrust certain players, like Vantrease, into leadership roles. As Leipold looks to retool for this season, he is looking for upperclassmen to guide the younger players.
“It was awesome to learn from them [graduated players], but as they move on in their futures, that leaves that role for me to take advantage of and just really run with,” Vantrease said. “As the quarterback, you are forced to be that leader, but at the same time, I know that’s a position everybody has the opportunity to do in college football. The opportunities that are coming for me and for the other guys that are going to have to step up are going to be interesting, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to go through the ups and the downs with them.”
The 2021 season will be UB’s second playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s team experienced historic accomplishments — a bowl game victory, an undefeated regular season and the first Associated Press Top 25 ranking in program history — so expectations are high heading into the upcoming season.
“[I’m] really pleased and proud of our players and what they’ve been able to do through this whole thing,” Leipold said. “I think hopefully as a country and locally as Western New York and a state we’re turning the corner and hopefully we have better days ahead.”
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found playing video games, watching ‘90s Knicks games and arguing with people on NBA Twitter at 3 a.m.