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2021 MAC Football Positional Previews: Buffalo Bulls secondary

Losing Tyrone Hill is a massive loss for the secondary, but Cory Gross Jr. is ready to captain the unit.

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

The 2020 Buffalo Bulls’ secondary did not offer significant experience, but they proved to be a rather effective assembly. Buffalo was forced to replace several starters from the 2019, and the new wave assimilated well into the program’s culture to lead the MAC’s second ranked points per game defense. Buffalo only permitted opponents to complete 55 percent of passing attempts last year and finished 15th nationally in the category. The Bulls allowed a smidge over 200 passing yards per game and yielded just eight passing touchdowns in seven games.

Most of the primary contributors from the pandemic-riddled season are back as 2021 returns to the traditional 12-game regular season schedule. However, head coach Lance Leipold’s departure sparked a massive exodus in the defensive staff. Joe Cauthen fulfills the defensive coordinator role after a stint of the same position at Houston. In the secondary, DeAndre Thompson begins his domain over the cornerbacks while Rod Ojong leads the safeties.

Thompson played at Texas A&M in the early 2010s and comes to Upstate New York after toting the second best pass defense in the FCS at Campbell last year. Ojong served as a defensive quality control coach at Georgia in 2020 for a Bulldog defense which allowed just 20 points per game in an 8-2 season.

Outside of the coaching staff, Tyrone Hill is the glaring loss in the secondary. The 2019 All-MAC free safety started the last two and a half seasons for the Bulls, maximizing his output as a junior with 71 tackles and 10 breakups. A menace in zone coverage, Hill took his talents to Pullman, WA this offseason to join Washington State’s defense.

Strong safety Cory Gross Jr., ranking second on the team in tackles last season, also followed Hill into the transfer portal in May. But Gross withdrew after consideration and returns to become the most crucial member to the unit this season. The 2020 season marked his first year as a starter, but the New York native adapted to the speed of the game with ease. He recorded an interception in the blowout win over Kent State and combined for 17 tackles in the two postseason matchups — the MAC Championship Game and the Camellia Bowl.

Alongside Gross at the safety position lines up E.J. Brown. The well-traveled senior enjoyed previous stops at West Virginia and at the JUCO level. Brown jumped into the starting lineup for the Bowling Green game last fall, and in the following week, he accumulated a career-high five tackles vs. Kent State. Brown’s role will expand this year following Hill’s departure, and the senior aims to secure his first interception at the FBS level.

Brown isn’t the only former Big 12 player in the defensive back room. Ja’Marcus Ingram transferred from Texas Tech after making one start in two seasons as a Red Raider. Prior to landing in Lubbock, Ingram shined in the Utah State secondary under head coach Matt Wells. At Utah State, he recorded 15 starts in two seasons. A seasoned veteran on his third FBS program, the 6’2” fifth-year senior provides 103 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and two interceptions of experience to the Buffalo secondary.

Buffalo lost one of its 2020 cornerback starters, creating a vacancy in the depth chart. Roy Baker Jr.’s production of 19 tackles and one interception must be replaced, and Ingram provides the experience and abilities to serve as a viable replacement.

Still, the Bulls retain Isaiah King, a former wide receiver who started all seven games at corner in 2020. King’s first start in November was an unforgettable one for him. In a 49-30 victory over Northern Illinois, he added to the scoring effort with a 42-yard scoop-and-score in the third quarter. King ranked eighth on the team with 22 total tackles and fourth with 18 solo tackles as a junior. The former high school track star is loaded with speed and should frequently draw matchups against the MAC’s top receivers this year.

Other defensive backs set to appear in nickel and dime packages include cornerbacks Aapri Washington and Logic Hudgens. Washington started all 13 games as a sophomore in 2019 and may possibly return to the lineup to start alongside King. He was burdened by injury last season, but when at the peak of his powers two years ago, he tallied 31 tackles and two interceptions for the Bulls.

Hudgens was a welcome spark off the bench as a true freshman in 2020. He made the game difficult for Miami (OH)’s talented receiving corps last October, pitching in five tackles and a pass breakup while the defense held the RedHawks to eight completions on 26 attempts.

Free safety Marcus Fuqua provides additional depth in the secondary after making one start in 2020. Fuqua was one of six Bulls to record an interception last fall and the redshirt sophomore has a reputation as one of the defense’s hardest hitters. The other key reserve in the safety department is Dylan Powell, who prepares for his senior season and third year as a Bull. Powell proved valuable in the Akron matchup while breaking up two passes, and his playing time should increase after 10 games of experience spanning two seasons.

Buffalo’s secondary will take the field one month from now, on Sept. 2 at UB Stadium. The Bulls open the schedule with a tune-up game against Wagner of the FCS before invoking on a journey to finish ranked in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history.