While the defensive line is getting most of the attention because they return every starter from last season, the linebacking corps does feature a bevy of returning names as well - including former All-MAC performers. After year one that saw many linebackers make the switch to defensive end and safeties make the switch to linebacker, the linebacking corps was a bit undersized but fared well in pass coverage. The losses of Okezie Alozie and Nick Gilbo are tough but the return of Jarrett Franklin from injury and the return of Brandon Berry will soften the blow.
OLB - Jarrett Franklin, R-Jr., 6-1, 230 - Franklin was the understudy to Khalil Mack during his senior season and played in 10 games as a true freshman, showing flashes of his ability including his breakout game against Ohio where he racked up 8 tackles and 1.5 sacks. After starting 10 games his sophomore season and returned as the defense’s top tackler in Coach Leipold’s first season, Franklin’s season was over before it began and he sat out the season with an injury. Now, Franklin is healthy and has wrestled away the starting position at outside linebacker from All-MAC second team selection Brandon Berry. This is an encouraging sign that Franklin is over his injury issues and is playing at a high level once again. Franklin doesn’t have the size of Khalil Mack, but his background as a wrestler gives him an advantage in positioning his body when taking on offensive linemen. Franklin has an interesting combination of size and speed, and seeing as he’s bulked up a bit from the last time he was on the field he should be more stout in the run game. It’ll be tough to keep Berry off of the field so look for Franklin to start and rotate heavily with Berry.
MLB - Khalil Hodge, So., 6-1, 240 - UB lost one their most assignment sound player in Nick Gilbo from the middle of the defense and Coach Leipold went out and signed a plug-and-play thumper in Khalil Hodge. Hodge played one JUCO season at CIty College of San Francisco, a school known for producing OJ Simpson before he moved on to USC. Hodge led CCSF to the California State Championship in his lone season for the Rams and in his senior season in high school he led the entire state of California and the nation in tackles with 262 (!) averaging almost 20 tackles per game. His former coach at CCSF is on record saying that if Hodge stayed a second season he would’ve been on the radar of every PAC-12 team. Hodge is a legitimate thumper in the middle of Brian Borland’s defense and will be an asset against the run, an area where UB struggled mightily last season. Hodge figures to start every game this season, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the JUCO transfer led the team in tackles.
OLB - Ishmael Hargrove, Jr., 6-1, 225 - Hargrove has quietly appeared in 14 games across his first two seasons on campus and finally looks ready to step into the starting lineup in the spot left open by Okezie Alozie’s graduation. Alozie was a known quantity but there is a bit of uncertainty to Hargrove given that he has yet to start a game for UB. However, several outlets have reported that Hargrove has had the best offseason of any player on the team which is encouraging. Hargrove could be a surprise player on the defense, look for him to hang on to the starting role throughout the season.
Key Reserves/Names to Watch
Brandon Berry, Sr., 6-1, 230 - The breakout star on last season’s defense and an All-MAC 2nd team choice, Berry enters his senior season on the 2nd team. It just so happens that he and Franklin play the same position so he’s been battling Franklin throughout the offseason for the starting role. However, even if Berry doesn’t end up starting, he’ll certainly see plenty of time on the field. Berry was an absolute force last season, ranking 2nd on the team with 104 tackles and 11.5 for loss. He was a downhill presence that had a nose for the ball in the run game and he didn’t earn the nickname “Crunch” by accident. Look for Berry to be a major contributor this season and follow up his All-MAC performance.
Jordan Collier, R-So., 5-11, 217 - Collier transferred into UB last season and was listed as a safety last season before being switched to linebacker this offseason. Collier was a special teams player primarily last season, many will remmeber the scary hit that he took in the season opener against Albany. Collier figures to come onto the field during passing downs due to his experience in pass coverage and will rotate with Hargrove on the wide side of the field.
Caleb Wilson, Jr., 6-0, 235 - Wilson is a JUCO transfer coming from West Hills College. His stats indicate that he has a nose for the ball just like teammate Brandon Berry. Wilson has 12.5 tackles for loss last season and was named the Golden Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Wilson looks to be in a rotation on the strong side with Berry and Franklin.
Jake Ames, R-Fr., 6-0, 222 - Jake is a local product from Williamsville and he and his brother Nick were both preferred walk ons last season. Both brothers could see some action in a rotation on the outside but can have an impact on special teams.
Nick Ames, R-Fr., 6-0, 215 - See above.
Zach Emer, R-Fr., 6-1, 235 - Emer is another local product who walked on to the team. He’ll likely see scout team duty or special teams this season if he makes the field during games.
Michael Mitris, Jr., 5-11, 225 - Mitris is yet another WNY walk-on to the linebacking corps and will serve as depth on the scout team.
Nico Ruggiero, R-Fr., 6-1, 225 - Ruggiero is another walk-on to the team and has seen some time in the offseason with the third team defense and could potentially see the field this season as a reserve.
Matt Otwinowski, Fr., 6-3, 225 - Otwinowski comes to UB from LaPorte, Indiana, the home of former UB center Trevor Sales. Otwinowski was originally committed to Kent State before flipping to UB. Otwinowski comes to the program with excellent size and the frame to add more weight. Otwinowski is a thumper in the middle of the defense. He’s assignment sound and can make tackles, and while he isn’t the best in pass coverage, UB doesn’t need that from him right now. He has been seeing time in camp as Khalil Hodge’s backup and he could be one of the true freshmen on the team that does see significant time this season.
Justin Mulbah, Fr., 5-11, 210 - Mulbah comes to UB from the Justin Winters pipeline at St. Vincent Pallotti. Mulbah is a hard hitter and is making the conversion from safety to linebacker and will likely redshirt this season.
Kadofi Wright, Fr., 6-3, 205 - Wright brings the length that UB sorely needs in its linebacking corps. Wright was particularly effective against the pass totaling 5 interceptions and 2 returned for touchdowns his senior season. He also blocked 6 (!) punts his senior season which means he could be an instant contributor on special teams if he is not redshirted.