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2021 MAC Positional Previews: Buffalo Bulls offensive line

Can the Bulls continue their dominance in the trenches after massive turnover and a coaching change?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 28 Kent State at Buffalo Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No offensive line has dominated college football over the past two seasons quite like the Buffalo Bulls.

In 2019, Buffalo only allowed seven sacks in 13 games. In the Bulls’ final eight games, only one sack was yielded. Then, Buffalo replaced three of its five starters and the results managed to improve. In 2020, the Bulls led the FBS in the category by allowing just one sack during their 7-game season. Giving up two sacks in its last 15 games allowed quarterback Kyle Vantrease considerable time in the pocket, and thus, accelerated his development as a patient passer and Buffalo’s offense as a whole..

Not only did the Bulls excel in pass protection, but they produced some of the widest rushing lanes for the ground game over the past several seasons. In 2020, Buffalo ranked first in rushing yards per carry, first in rushing touchdowns per game, and third in rushing yards per game. Running backs Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks enjoyed limitless production with countless assists from the trenches, combining for 1,813 rushing yards over seven games last fall.

As recognition for its prowess in both facets of the game, the Buffalo Bulls offensive line was one of 11 semifinalists in contention for the Joe Moore Award in 2020.

While Buffalo has succeeded despite turnover on the o-line before, sustaining that level of play is going to be a demanding task after a chaotic offseason. Head coach Lance Leipold departed to Kansas in April, and he moved nearly his entire staff to Lawrence, KS. That includes former offensive line coach Scott Fuchs, who produced three First Team All-MAC and three Second Team All-MAC linemen in two years at the helm.

Buffalo’s two First Team All-MAC linemen from 2020 left the program, albeit in different directions. Second Team FWAA All-American Kayode Awosika, the starting left tackle last fall, is currently a priority undrafted free agent signing on the Philadelphia Eagles. Center Mike Novitsky followed Leipold to Kansas, where he’ll likely serve as the centerpiece on Fuchs’ new offensive line.

The Bulls also lose their starting left guard Jacob Gall. In an offseason which featured the most transfer portal movement in the sport’s history, Gall tested the waters of the portal and wound up at Baylor. In addition to the departures of Novitsky and Gall, Michael Ford Jr. — a 2020 reserve with 2021 starting potential — left Buffalo with Leipold and committed to Kansas. Overall, Buffalo lost three offensive linemen to the transfer portal.

The lone returning starters are right guard Jack Klenk and right tackle Jake Fuzak. Following the departure of a left tackle, Buffalo typically transitions its right tackle to the left side of the line. The Bulls experienced unhinged success when applying the move to Evin Ksiezarczyk and Kayode Awosika in recent years, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Fuzak — a 2020 Second Team All-MAC selection — undergoes a similar transition.

Fuzak and Klenk originally stepped on campus in 2016 as redshirts, so 2021 will represent their sixth year as a Bull. Klenk originally joined the program as a walk-on while Fuzak initiated his college career as a defensive lineman. Both of the returning veterans are entering their second season as anchors on the starting offensive line.

The newer faces expected to join Klenk and Fuzak on the offensive line include a duo of reserves from 2020 — offensive tackle Caelan Shepard and center Bence Polgar. But after losing Gall and Novitsky in the transfer portal, the Bulls gained a much-needed interior lineman in guard Jordan Johnson, a transfer from Eastern Kentucky. Johnson started all nine games last season in one of the premier offenses at the FCS level. Shortly after Johnson’s arrival, Buffalo beefed up its depth by landing JUCO interior lineman Jack Hasz in early June.

Turnover on the offensive line was facilitated well under Fuchs, but maintaining the recent tradition of Buffalo’s offensive line dominance belongs to the newly hired Matt Stansfield. Stansfield was hired on head coach Maurice Linguist’s staff after serving the previous five seasons as Duquesne’s run game coordinator and offensive line coach at the FCS level.

The offensive line is still working for two familiar faces. In the pass protecting game, the mission remains to shield Vantrease. On the ground, Marks returns to campus as the feature back. Now, it’s up to Klenk and Fuzak to retain their stardom from last season and pass it on to the newcomers, while Stansfield aims to lead the group to a season similar to the prior years.