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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Buffalo Bulls offensive skill positions

With turnover at quarterback, running back, and tight end, Quian Williams and the receiving corps look assume the leadership role of a rebuilding Buffalo offense.

NCAA Football: Coastal Carolina at Buffalo Nicholas LoVerde-USA TODAY Sports

A head coaching change often leads to an elongated rebuild in the modern age of the transfer portal. That perfectly encapsulates the situation at Buffalo, which has experienced copious amounts of moving parts since head coach Maurice Linguist took over for Lance Leipold in May 2021.

The transfer portal poached a litany of the Bulls’ skill positions this offseason, including a three-year starting quarterback and 1,000-yard rusher. Kyle Vantrease is off to Georgia Southern after mailing passes for 4,755 yards and 25 touchdowns in five seasons as a Bull. Dylan McDuffie is also headed to the Peach State, landing at Georgia Tech after a breakout 2021 campaign which featured 1,049 rushing yards, 123 receiving yards, and 12 total touchdowns.

What’s left? Buffalo still returns one of the MAC’s top receiving talents in Quian Williams. Williams completed a rare intra-conference transfer in the 2021 offseason, crossing over from Eastern Michigan to the farthest east institution in the league. The result was immediate success. The Third Team All-MAC selection tied for sixth in the MAC with 64 receptions and ranked seventh in the conference with 835 receiving yards.

Compared to the other skill positions, the wide receiving group is still fairly in tact. Former quarterback-turned-receiver Dominic Johnson graduated from the program, but the program still unleashes Jovany Ruiz-Navarro, who possesses some of the strongest hamstrings in the country. Ruiz-Navarro was a valuable short-yardage contributor on the 2020 MAC East champion team, but suffered a season-ending injury after recording two starts last fall. He’ll be back alongside Jamari Gassett who thrived in Ruiz-Navarro’s absence with 270 receiving yards.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Marshall vs Buffalo
Jovany Ruiz-Navarro switched from No. 87 to No. 8 this offseason. Buffalo will enjoy the new No. 8’s return to the field after he posted team-highs in receptions and yards in the 2020 Camellia Bowl win.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

While Buffalo doesn’t retain its seemingly-eternal starter in Vantrease, the Bulls’ receivers will still be operating with a familiar facilitator. Matt Myers was the Week 1 starter for the 2019 season, and three years later, he is expected to return to that role. Myers received significant playing time last November, finishing with a career-high 703 passing yards to go with four touchdowns and five interceptions on the year. Buffalo would like to see Myers improve his career completion percentage of 51, as well as his near 1-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and that is certainly possible with another year of experience under his belt.

Myers’ specialty as a quarterback involves his mobility, and he was able to showcase this in a 78-yard rushing performance in a midweek bout at Ball State last November. Utilizing this mobility will be essential if Buffalo’s offense wants to maintain its typical rushing numbers, especially after the loss of McDuffie and four offensive linemen.

In each of the last three seasons, Buffalo situated itself in the nation’s top quartile in the rushing department. But with McDuffie and former All-MAC halfback Kevin Marks no longer on the depth chart, Buffalo will have to manufacture new stars at running back. The prime candidate is Ron Cook Jr., who earned all-conference status as a return specialist last year. Cook averaged 5.0 yards per carry while ranking second on the team in rushing yards. The senior will further expand his role in 2022 as the succeeding lead back, and he’ll likely claim his first 100-yard outing in the process.

Expanding on the running back room, Mike Washington appeared in three games while maintaining redshirt status last year, and he is fit to serve in a second fiddle role to Cook. Also, senior Tajay Ahmed was recently placed on scholarship which suggests a potential increase in exposure to the gridiron after six carries and a touchdown in 2021.

To round out the returning skill position players, Buffalo’s tight end room experienced significant turnover by losing its top-two pass catchers from a year ago — including starter Tyler Stephens who transferred to Missouri. The Bulls don’t rely on heavy tight end utilization in the receiving game, so these players more-so serve as the sixth man to the team’s traditionally stout offensive line. Leading the tight end group this season is Trevor Borland, who has served as an excellent run blocker on offense and valuable contributor on special teams over the past two seasons.

What’s new? Buffalo hauled in the No. 1 transfer class in the MAC according to 247Sports, and no team was within reasonable striking distance. Of those transfers, several are ready to immediate make an impact at the skill positions.

Justin Marshall transferred in after claiming a spot as Louisville’s fourth most frequented target in 2021. The graduate transfer racked up 322 receiving yards on 23 catches in his final season in the ACC and he looks to become a much-welcomed complemented to Williams and Co.

Boobie Curry is another established receiver Buffalo brought in from the portal. At Arizona, Curry recorded eight starts and ranked second on the team in touchdown receptions, acquiring 233 yards along the way. But the Bulls didn’t just bring in two receivers who surpassed the 230-yard mark in 2021. Cole Harrity from the New Mexico State also joins the crew after a 30-reception season in Las Cruces. With the three seasoned transfers meshing with Buffalo’s returning talent, the receiving corps becomes the strongest offensive position group in the program.

Northern Arizona v Arizona
Boobie Curry crossed the 40-yard receiving mark in four games for Arizona last season. Overall, he finished with three touchdowns — good for second of all Wildcat receivers.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Wide receiver talent made up a significant portion of Buffalo’s incoming transfer production, but the Bulls also recruited several tight ends from lower divisions. Ray Embry earned all-conference honors at the Division II level while Robbie Mangas averaged over 20 yards per catch at Dartmouth while serving as the team captain. These are necessary additions to a team losing plenty of depth at the position.

To provide additional support at quarterback, Buffalo landed quarterback Cole Snyder from the portal. The Rutgers transfer completed 18 of his 28 attempts in 2021, firing one touchdown and zero interceptions in limited action. Snyder is the only quarterback besides Myers to attempt a collegiate pass, and he could provide competition at the position prior to the Week 1 depth chart release.

Buffalo did not add any running backs from the portal, but the team witnessed immediate success by playing true freshmen — notably in 2018 with Marks and Jaret Patterson. This year’s gem in the recruiting class was three-star halfback Jackson Paradis, who was rated No. 83 at his position nationally per ESPN. Paradis averaged double-digit yards per carry en route to becoming the New Hampshire high school player of the year, so Buffalo could unleash the young prospect immediately in a relatively-inexperienced running back room.

The receiving corps contains most of the experience in this offense and will be pertinent to lifting Buffalo back to bowl eligibility in 2022. With a new full-time quarterback, a young cast of running backs, and four starters to replace on the offensive line, there may be growing pains in year two of Linguist’s rebuild, but if any lesson was learned from the Leipold era — a 2-10 season can transform into 10 wins in an instant, and everything can come together soon.