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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Buffalo Bulls defensive front seven

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James Patterson and Eric Black aim to leverage the defensive success of the 2020 Camellia Bowl into 2021.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Marshall vs Buffalo Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Cauthen takes charge of Buffalo’s defense as its newly hired coordinator. After spending the last two seasons under Dana Holgorsen in Houston, Cauthen will oversee a veteran defense which should help him ease into his new role at Buffalo. Additionally, he’ll coach the linebackers while another staff addition — former UMass defensive line coach Cedric Douglas — will handle the four men up front. The 4-3 defense should remain stagnant despite the significant coaching overhaul, and despite the chaos in the personnel changes, Buffalo is gifted with plenty of valuable experience in the front seven.

Defensive Line

A hefty portion of Buffalo’s interior defensive line is now suiting up in Kansas Jayhawks blue. Defensive tackles Eddie Wilson and Ronald McGee followed head coach Lance Leipold to the Big 12. Wilson was a massive contributor at the nose tackle position, an unmistakable talent in his signature tight-fitting No. 0 jersey and eye goggles. Buffalo must replace Wilson’s two years of starting experience on the defensive line, as well as McGee’s solid contributions off the bench.

But the most glaring departure on the unit is two-time First Team All-MAC selection Malcolm Koonce, who warranted a third round draft pick by the Las Vegas Raiders in April. Koonce was the premier pass rusher in the conference, producing 13 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in his final 17 games as a Bull.

When Koonce sat out the Camellia Bowl vs. Marshall, a new breakout star emerged in Eric Black. The former walk-on stepped into a starting role for all seven games last season. In the Camellia Bowl sans Koonce, Black wrapped up Marshall quarterback Grant Wells in the backfield twice in the final eight minutes, propelling Buffalo to preserve a 17-10 victory. The latter sack transpired on Marshall’s final play from a scrimmage — a 4th and 11 just 21 yards away from the end zone. Black, now a senior and one of the stars of this defense, aims to build on his clutch finish to 2020 as he prepares for his second season as a full-time starter.

Black emerged into the lineup in place of Taylor Riggins last year. Riggins, a seasoned defensive end on Buffalo’s roster, sat out the 2020 season with an injury. He qualified for the All-MAC First Team after his last on-field action in 2019, registering 8.5 sacks and recovering three fumbles as a major defensive disruptor. With Riggins back and manning the perimeter of the line with Black, Buffalo’s defensive end pair is one of the strongest in the conference, even after losing an NFL prospect of Koonce’s caliber.

Buffalo still retains one established defensive tackle to complement Black and Riggins. George Wolo ranked second on the team in sacks a year ago with three, and he forced a pair of fumbles in a standout true freshman campaign. After an impressive performance in a starting role in the MAC Championship Game, look for Wolo to be a candidate to land an all-conference selection as a sophomore.

Buffalo is in dire need of another defensive tackle to break out due to the thinness of depth at the position, however. The two Kansas transfers and the loss of Tyrece Woods Jr. will possibly catapult Dom Polizzi into the starting lineup. Polizzi is a walk-on that cracked the rotation last year and saw success in limited action, adding four tackles to his newly printed collegiate résumé. Another sophomore candidate who will compete with Polizzi for the other starting defensive tackle spot is Nick Zikuski, who amassed two tackles in 2020.

The Bulls also brought in a transfer from Texas A&M transfer Josh Rogers to add depth. Another potential starter for the spot next to Wolo, Rogers tallied five tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in 2019 with the Aggies.

When looking at other defensive line depth, Max Michel is an intriguing name. The defensive end proved a valuable piece of the rotation by contributing 17 tackles, four tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. Michel, primarily a special teams player prior to 2020, made his first career start in the Camellia Bowl and left the scene with six tackles, along with a sack and forced fumble combination on a third down stop.

Linebackers

James Patterson is preparing to launch his fourth year as the heart of the Buffalo Bulls’ defense. The linebacker is the twin brother of All-American halfback Jaret Patterson, who decided to forego his senior year in pursuit of his NFL dreams. Now James is the lone Patterson on campus, and he’s a phenomenal player like Jaret — just on the complete opposite side of the ball.

For the first time in his three years as a starter, Patterson led the Bulls in tackles. He moved from outside to middle last year and the transition worked wonders for him. He managed a team-high 63 tackles in seven games and clinched his initial First Team All-MAC selection. Patterson surged onto the scene as a freshman with 77 tackles and nine tackles for loss in 2018, and the Maryland native has not taken his foot of the brakes once. With massive turnover in the coaching department, Patterson (now wearing No. 8 on his jersey) will use his defensive captain status to be one of the leaders of the entire program.

Lining up alongside the elite run stopper are outside backers Kadofi Wright and Tim Terry Jr. Wright has served as a key performer since the 2017 season for the Buffalo defense. In 2019, he secured Second Team All-MAC honors at outside linebacker for his excellent work in the coverage game, hauling in two interceptions to complement 31 tackles and a pair of sacks. Wright kicked off the 2020 MAC season with a 65-yard pick six in the opening night win over Northern Illinois.

However, he was not the only outside linebacker to reach in the end zone in that contest. Against the Huskies, Terry recovered a fumble and brought it 42 yards for the house to usher in his first collegiate touchdown. The senior started nine games in 2019 and one last season, so he provides a wealth of experience to the position. Terry’s starting role was briefly usurped by UCLA transfer Tyree Thompson in the shortened 2020 season, but with Thompson no longer on campus, Terry returns to control the outsides with Wright.

For depth at outside linebacker, Buffalo beefed up its unit in the transfer portal by signing former Kentucky Wildcat and JUCO prospect Tra Wilkins. Wilkins produced three tackles on a 2019 Kentucky defense which produced five NFL draft picks. Mark Tate, a member of Buffalo’s 2020 squad, produced five tackles last year and should experience more on-field action heading into this fall.

The three projected starting linebackers of Patterson, Wright, and Terry combined for 107 tackles in 2020, and when paired with a relatively experienced defensive line, Buffalo’s front seven should be its greatest asset in 2021. Ranking 16th in the FBS in sacks and 35th in opponent rushing average, Buffalo has a slew of playmakers in the front seven capable of making this group one of the strongest in the MAC.