There is no getting around the Thelma and Louise sized talent cliff that the Buffalo Bulls just went over. Let's not sugar coat the fact that six of the seniors who graduated are now in NFL camps, or that there are likely going to be two or three more in CFL football camps.
We lost a lot of the heart and soul of this team, we lost a lot of our firepower and the "wow" factor which sent the Bulls to a Bowl game last season. This year's squad is much younger with most of the skill positions being occupied by Juniors and Sophomores as opposed to last year's senior-laden squad.
If we want to look at the player with the best chance to make noise on the offensive side of the ball then Devon Hughes is about it. He is the lone senior likely to have a starting job this year and he will be key if Joe Licata wants to fill the Alex Neutz-sized hole in the UB receiving corps.
There is other youth and talent at wide out but Hughes has more experience than anyone. Still it's very hard for a mid-major receiver to break into the draft based on just one year of work. Hughes would have to have a huge year, breaking multiple Neutz or Naaman Roosevelt records to even start getting traction. Those records might be attainable though, given UB's schedule but NFL scouts are not fools. He has a chance to show his skills against Baylor and a couple of good MAC teams. He needs to make those games count.
Adam Redden will return and try to show that his ability to disrupt plays and generate turnovers was not just an artifact of all the attention opposing offenses gave Khalil Mack. Redden's role last year was the "Drop Linebacker" in Lou Tepper's scheme and given the fact he transitioned from a receiver to the defensive back to a linebacker while at UB, that is a perfect place for him. The drop LB role might also help him with NFL scouts who would otherwise look at Redden as "too small" to be an NFL linebacker, but at the same time like the fact he has shown such versatility, possibly in a dedicated special teams role.
In the defensive backfield Courtney Lester is the lone senior. The former wide receiver developed into a pretty solid lock-down corner and started all 13 games last season. He tied Khalil Mack with a team-best three interceptions, and also had one fumble recovery. Nine times last season Lester finished with 2 or more tackles.
Teams are going to see an opportunity to throw on the Bulls this season, their quarterbacks will not have Khalil Mack charging in from one side and Colby Way from the other. The play of the DB's may be bigger this season than any going back to 2008. So Lester may not come in to this season with the hype that Najja Johnson got last year but he could very well have a better season and that could put him in the UDFA category.
The one area where UB is pretty deep with seniors is on the line. Andre Davis, Trevor Sales, Jake Silas, Dillon Guy are all upperclassmen that will be trying to make a name for themselves. Of them Davis is perhaps a guy who could turn the most heads.
He has the size and has shown versatility and durability during his UB career. Always quick to move to another spot on the line in the event of an injury Davis stands at 6 foot 4 inches and checks in at about 320 pounds. But most of UB's senior linemen are in that size window and because of that any one of them with a great season may get some notice at the next level.
We cant leave out special teams and the man we affectionately call "MVP" here at Bull Run. Patrick Clarke is as good a kicker as we have seen at UB which translates into a possible UDFA spot following the draft next season, but he has to put up some good numbers to earn it. Clarke has a great leg from distance and is used to kicking in the maelstrom known as Buffalo weather.
It's important for Buffalo that they continue a pipeline of talent into the NFL. 15 years ago the UB Athletics Department jumped into the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) ill-prepared and unmotivated to get any better. There were people working hard behind the scenes but until Warde Manuel came along the football team limped along with only the occasional player moving into the NFL.
There are now a dozen Bulls in the NFL, and odds are at least half of those players will be suiting up on Sundays this season. We have a Bull who started as a running back on a Superbowl champion, a quarterback who helped take his team to the CFL's Grey Cup, and now a top five draft pick.
It feels like we have finally turned a corner which is why momentum is so important now. While we may not have that high profile NFL draft pick this coming year we have proven to NFL scouts that Buffalo football puts out products worth looking at, let's get them back to the combine and pro day this season.
A lot of this is going to be on UB Athletics' publicity department. Without the Khalil Mack show on ESPN it's going to be up to UB Athletics to get people's attention. They should be tracking and updating highlight films for all of this years seniors, putting in solid graphic design and production behind the films.
This is not a call for billboards or high profile public efforts, but the behind-the-scenes production values type of work. What would be great for a guy straddling the line between being an undrafted free agent and a late round pick would be the behind-the-scenes work. Is UB playing a road game near an NFL team that has a "need" for a lock down corner next year? Shoot off a tape and letter to their front office trying to get the scout in the stands. Make NFL scouts start to expect a tape every other week. Not a junk mail type tape but something targeted towards them. It's that important to get a Bull drafted, even late, so the streak stays alive.
There are also academic resources worth tapping at UB. Reach out to someone like Professor P. Anand Rao who is UB's Director of the Speaking Intensive Program and the Speaking Center. Perhaps there is a grad student who wants to work with the UB players likely to get interviewed by NFL teams and given the importance of those interviews maybe the players would be interested.
If the University is committed to excellence in its Athletics Department, and specifically in its football program, there has to be a concerted effort between the Athletics Director, the Head Coach and anyone else that matters to ensure that the top brass at the University are working together towards this goal.