Tommy Tutone. Norman Greenbaum. Chumbawamba.
The University at Buffalo football team hopes they will not join that list of one-hit wonders as they begin their defense of the Mid-American Conference title tonight against UTEP.
A lot has changed for coach Turner Gill’s squad since they opened their historic 2008 season against the Miners. The Bulls went on to win a school-record nine games and, in addition to winning the MAC championship, earned their first bowl invitation since 1958.
UB returns 14 starters from last year’s team, but it’s going to take a lot of work if they want to taste that kind of success again.
New coordinators on both offense and defense add to the intrigue. Gill has turned the offensive playcalling over to former quarterbacks coach Danny Barrett and, after firing longtime friend Jimmy Williams, promoted defensive backs coach Fred Reed to defensive coordinator.
Barrett’s biggest challenge may very well start with sophomore Zach Maynard, who will make his first start under center tonight. He replaces the most prolific quarterback in the program’s history, Drew Willy. Maynard is much more mobile than Willy ever was, but is without two important factors: experience and a reliable run game.
With senior running back James Starks recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery, junior Brandon Thermilus will be handed a bulk of the carries. He rushed for 454 yards last season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry with seven touchdowns. Four of those seven scores came in the first three weeks of the season in short yardage situations.
Thermilus’ production dropped off significantly in the final six games, carrying the ball 22 times for 111 yards with no touchdowns. In all fairness, it was tough to take the ball out of Starks’ hands as he set UB’s single-season rushing record.
Thermilus will be joined in the backfield by senior Mario Henry, who has been inconsistent since injuring himself during a successful 2007 season complementing Starks.
In the 2.5 games Starks missed last season with a hip injury, Thermilus and Henry combined for 264 yards and two touchdowns.
It will be interesting to see how a questionable rushing attack affects senior wide receiver Naaman Roosevelt’s production.
Turnovers were key to the team’s success last season and the Bulls return nearly their entire secondary from a year ago. Led by safeties Mike Newton and Davonte Shannon, Gill has said that this might be the best defense he’s had in his four seasons at UB.
They had problems stopping the run, most obviously in losses Pittsburgh, Missouri and UConn. Keep an eye out for anyone on the defensive line that steps up over the next few weeks, especially with senior tackle Dane Robinson suspended by the team for two games for disciplinary reasons. Redshirt-freshman defensive end Steven Means could very well be the team’s breakout player this year.
When the Buffalo took on the Miners’ spread offense last year at UB Stadium, they walked away with a 42-17 victory. The Bulls will look to recapture that magic in El Paso at 9 p.m. tonight.