Buffalo fans were encouraged by the prospect of finally seeing James Potts hit the field and I suspect most would think that if anyone on the roster could eclipse Starks it would have been Potts. He was one of UB's biggest recruiting gets of all time picking Buffalo over offers from Big10 and SEC schools.
However Potts never broke the top two during spring ball and ended up sitting out the year for academic issues. He still may have a promising future but unlike last season he, and the other Buffalo half backs, have a solid number one sitting in front of them.
Branden Oliver, all five foot eight of him, was UB's only real weapon in the backfield this season. More than 92% of all carries by a UB running back laded in his hands. Oliver, for his part, made the most of those chances by putting up almost 1,400 yards on the ground.
Despite a very good opening game against Pitt there were some questions about Oliver. He only ran for about 3.3 per carry and it's doubtful any player, even one as well conditioned as Oliver, could hold up to 35 carries a game.
And that's the way it went in the early weeks. Oliver basically ran full speed at the line and if there was a hole he might rip off a ten to 15 yard run. It was more effective than 2010 and it was netting yards but it was not a very dangerous running game.
Throw in a very mediocre performance against Tennessee and it begin to look like Oliver, despite respectable numbers, was not UB's long term solution in the backfield. But then a funny thing happened.
Anyone who sat down and really watched the games could see the game slow down for BO.
Oliver seemed to pick his holes better, follow his blocks a bit better, and see the cutback lanes appear a moment sooner than he had early in the year. That, along with his mass and conditioning made a huge difference.
The results were clear. Oliver who hadn't been good for anything more than a dozen or so at best began to rip off more and more long runs. He also became far more effective in the passing game putting up about eight percent of his receiving yards during the second half of the season.
This spring Oliver is clearly going into camp as the number one back and will not be facing anyone who he did not have to compete against last summer but there are some issues with BO.
Maybe its just the height but he seems to lack that next gear needed to win a footrace with a defensive back. He may rip off the occasional long touchdown run but usually its due to some down field blocking by receiver or a defensive back who is caught out of position.
Some of the other guys on the roster have that speed. Potts does and reportedly so does Brandon Murie.
This will also be the first spring for Anthone Taylor who looked relatively solid in the very slight amount of work he saw last season.
The New Guys
UB currently has no verbal commitments from running backs but I would not rule out Jordan Johnson as a possible challenger.
The Sweet Home quarterback may get a crack at a spot behind center but if he does not win out he is clearly too athletic to sit on the bench. Maybe he gets put with the wide outs or maybe sized up as a running back. 6-1 and 200 pounds is not a bad frame to build on.
Oliver is clearly the guy to beat and he got there by out working just about everyone else on the team. BO makes Steve Tasker look tall and yet his 2011 body of work stands above most every UB running back in franchise history. The bigger question going into spring is who is the number two back and will Coach Quinn actually make use of them this year?