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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Buffalo Bulls offensive skill positions

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Kevin Marks’ withdrawal from the transfer portal allows Buffalo to return with plenty of offensive firepower.

MAC Football Championship - Ball State v Buffalo Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Buffalo put on the points in 2020. With an approach of running down opponents’ throats, yet, keeping them honest with the passing game, the Bulls averaged the fifth most points per game in the entire FBS at 43.4.

Plenty of returning skill position players return to fortify the offense, but due to an offseason coaching overhaul, Buffalo is forced to operate under new leadership. Former Michigan co-defensive coordinator Maurice Linguist takes over Lance Leipold’s duties as the head coach, while Shane Montgomery — an offensive coordinator from FCS powerhouse James Madison — replaces Andy Kotelnicki, who joined Leipold at Kansas.

Quarterback

Kyle Vantrease is back in blue and white in his third go-around as the team’s starting quarterback. In the Lance Leipold era, Vantrease wasn’t required to throw very much. In his last 15 starts, the Stow, OH native only surpassed 27 passing attempts once. On the contrary, he threw less than 15 times on four separate occasions over those 15 games. But Vantrease showed impressive development as a pocket passer last season, especially in a blowout win over Miami (OH). He demonstrated his arm strength with a series of deep throws, en route to a stat line that featured 17 completions, 353 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions. In the 42-10 victory, Vantrease registered touchdown passes of 78 and 82 yards.

His completion percentage augmented to 62.3 percent and he boosted his averaged yards per attempt from 6.9 to 8.6. Buffalo’s offense has thrived in large part to Vantrease’s smart decision-making — he has only thrown five interceptions compared to 15 touchdowns in the past two seasons.

While Vantrease isn’t typically featured on designed runs, he can be dangerous in short yardage situations such as 4th and 1s and goal line situations. His QB bootleg proved effective, registering rushing 10 touchdowns in his past 15 showings.

Vantrease’s backup remains Matt Myers, who is one of the more experienced second string quarterbacks in the country. Myers, who entered and quickly withdrew from the transfer portal in May, started the first five games for Buffalo in 2019 before Vantrease took over starting duties.

Running Back

An astronomically high percentage of Buffalo’s offensive play calls were runs last season, and the Bulls managed the fifth highest scoring offense in the nation as a result. No team averaged more yards per carry than Buffalo’s 6.7, and the team averaged an FBS-high 4.6 rushing touchdowns per game.

Buffalo’s offense revolved heavily around Jaret Patterson over the past three seasons, and especially last year. Unfortunately for the Bulls, Patterson is no longer on campus. After a historic 2020 for the running back which featured 710 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns over a 2-game span, the All-American is testing the waters of the NFL as a free agent signing by the Washington Football Team.

That leaves his running mate Kevin Marks to carry the heavy lifting of the ground game. Marks, a two-time All-MAC selection, was as dominant as any secondary running back in college football over the past half-decade. He averaged over 100 yards per contest last year, registering 741 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games. Marks attained a season-high 182 yards in a win over Akron and capped off the season with 138 yards, the game-winning touchdown, and MVP honors in the Camellia Bowl win over Marshall.

Marks entered the transfer portal on Jan. 9, but fortunately for Buffalo, he withdrew his name nine days later. After losing Lance Leipold and nearly the entire coaching staff to Kansas, as well as a slew of offensive linemen, Marks remains one of the stable components of the offense after deciding to run it back for his senior year. He will seek his second 1,000 yard rushing season after attaining the millennium mark in 2019.

While the Patterson-Marks duo has officially come to a close, another name could step up as a viable sidekick to Marks. Ron Cook Jr., one of Buffalo’s most versatile players, is the likely candidate to elevate into second on the depth chart. Cook has been the recipient of 38 carries over the last two seasons, converting those attempts into 177 yards and a touchdown. Buffalo hasn’t designed many passing plays to its running backs in recent years, but Cook’s experience as a wide receiver makes him a dangerous threat in that department as well.

Wide Receiver

The centerpiece of the passing game over the past two seasons was the strong-armed receiver Antonio Nunn, who is currently chasing an NFL future with the Atlanta Falcons. Buffalo’s primary deep threat, Trevor Wilson, followed Coach Leipold to Kansas this offseason. Thus, a relatively inexperienced group will handle receiving duties for Buffalo this year.

Fifth-year senior Jovany Ruiz is the leader of the unit, ranking second on the team in receptions in 2020. The former walk-on made three starts last fall and brings a roster-best 192 yards of experience to the receiving corps. Former quarterback Dominic Johnson played sparingly at wide receiver over the past two years, and the Bulls will have to rely on his experience and his ability to utilize his 6’5” frame to high-point the ball in order to advance the aerial attack.

The lack of experience in the group leaves plenty of leeway for newer faces to break out. One candidate in this category includes Bernard Porter, the only other returning wide receiver on the 2020 roster with a reception to his name. Fifth-year senior Carlton Todd also poses as a potential breakout threat after 10 receptions in 2019 and a dominant run at the community college ranks.

Luckily for the Bulls, they struck gold in the portal in late June, landing a seasoned intra-conference transfer in Quian Williams. The former Eastern Michigan standout caught 52 passes for 661 yards and six touchdowns in the Eagles’ last full season in 2019. Williams, a graduate transfer, will be able to take the field immediately, and his successful experiences against MAC cornerbacks bolsters the unit immensely.

Tight End

Tight end is another position Buffalo must recharge. Longtime stalwart Zac Lefebvre completed his transfer to WKU in January, leaving Jake Molinich in charge of the role. Molinich appeared in seven contests last year and started two, handling one reception while excelling in blocking roles. Due to Buffalo’s run-heavy nature, blocking has become the main course for tight ends. Molinich once started all 13 games of the 2019 season and didn’t even record a reception. He’ll need another one of the tight ends on the roster — possibly Trevor Borland or Cole Burniston — to step up and join him in blocking duties in Buffalo’s frequent two tight end sets.