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2022 MAC Football Positional Previews: Buffalo Bulls defensive front seven

All-conference honoree James Patterson runs it back for his fifth year as one of the MAC’s premier defensive stars.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Wagner at Buffalo Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The front seven is the heartbeat of the Buffalo Bulls. The Bulls have consistently flaunted a stellar defensive line and linebacking corps in recent history, often ranking near the pinnacle of the FBS hierarchy when it comes to generating sacks and backfield stops. The program garnered two All-MAC selections in 2021 that return to the group for 2022, so the veteran leadership remains strong, even though the Bulls remain in a transitory stage as head coach Maurice Linguist enters his second year at the helm.

The focal point of the defense wears a No. 8 jersey and is a familiar face to all MAC fans. When you see someone in a Buffalo jersey with the name ‘Patterson’ on the back, you know you’re watching someone special. James Patterson returns for his fifth year as Buffalo’s starting linebacker — lining up on the outside in 2018 and 2019 before shifting inside in 2020. His All-American twin brother Jaret (currently with the Washington Commanders) used to post rushing stat-lines that would make your 5-star recruit on NCAA 14 dynasty mode jealous, and now James does the same for the Bulls’ defense.

James, a two-time First Team All-MAC selection, accumulated 114 tackles last season to rank among the nation’s elite in his last go-around. He also invaded the backfield at an impressive clip with career-highs of 12 tackles for loss and four sacks. But that’s not even half of his résumé. Patterson’s punch and rip abilities are second-to-none in the conference as well with seven career forced fumbles. He’s also left quite a mark in the coverage game, intercepting a pass in each of the last three seasons. While Buffalo may be in a state of transition, the Bulls are blessed with one of the nation’s top-tier linebackers captaining the defense.

Only two other linebackers only the team have a start under their belt, but the lack of on-field action shouldn’t sting too badly as Buffalo only requires two starters in Brandon Bailey’s 4-2-5 scheme.

Shaun Dolac started each of the final two games at outside linebacker last year and he capitalized exceptionally well on those opportunities. Dolac hit double-digit tackles in both contests, totaling 24 total and three tackles for loss in back-to-back midweek games. Among incumbent players, Dolac collected the fourth-most tackles in 2021, paving way for the junior to be a likely starter alongside Patterson.

The other linebacker with a start is Fabian Weitz, who got the call in Buffalo’s Thursday night opener against Wagner last September. The Germany native has 13 career tackles to his name and is set to once-again serve as a contributing piece in the rotation.

Another linebacker who could witness a rampant spike in playing time is Caleb Tate, who served as a special teams staple in every game over the past two seasons. Lastly, we may witness the rise of senior Jake Zimmer — a longtime scout team all-star who made recurring appearances in Buffalo’s highly-successful 2020 campaign.

Two transfers also joined the room this offseason. Willie Hampton, a former Nebraska recruit who made a name for himself in the FCS at Western Carolina, should fortify the linebacker depth as one of the more experienced transfers on defense. But Hampton isn’t the only former Cornhusker making residence in Buffalo this offseason. Former Nebraska outside linebacker and Navy SEAL Damian Jackson committed in June after racking up 12 tackles in the Big Ten. The 30-year old graduate transfer shed walk-on status to earn a scholarship in 2020 and will be immediately eligible to continue his incredible journey at Buffalo. Jackson is interchangeable at defensive end and outside linebacker, so it’s unclear which position group he is a better fit for at the moment.

The defensive line is in magnificent shape when it comes to returning depth. Buffalo may have lost defensive end Taylor Riggins, who led the MAC in sacks in 2019, but Riggins’ injury battles over the past two seasons forced the Bulls to develop new talent in his place. One of those development projects was Kyler Laing, who set the school record for sacks in a game in a 3.5-sack outing versus Akron last season.

When Riggins missed time in 2020, it spurred the progression of Max Michel, who is now of the conference’s premier defensive ends. Michel missed the final four games last year but the aggressive pass rusher still made his mark with four sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.

NCAA Football: Coastal Carolina at Buffalo
Buffalo DE Max Michel is one of nine MAC players on the preseason watchlist for the Wuerffel Trophy, which recognizes the combination of community service, success in the classroom, and dominance on the gridiron.
Nicholas LoVerde-USA TODAY Sports

Having four starting-caliber defensive ends is a good problem to have, and that’s an issue Buffalo must sort out in fall camp. The Bulls’ most impactful transfer haul this offseason was NC State edge rusher Ibrahim Kante, who will serve as an immediate force on the defensive line. Kante started 13 games for the Wolfpack and tallied 5.5 sacks to go along with 14 tackles for loss. Rounding out the established talent in Buffalo’s stacked defensive end group is C.J. Bazile, who recorded seven starts in 2021. Bazile amassed 30 tackles in his sophomore campaign but his most notable moment was his 85-yard return originating from a blocked field goal in last September’s thrilling win over Old Dominion.

Buffalo’s depth dives deepest at defensive end, but the Bulls are most top-heavy at defensive tackle. Daymond Williams was easily the team’s most pleasant surprise in 2021, rising from a JUCO prospect to an All-MAC talent in the span of one season. Williams accomplished an impressive feat by operating as the team leader in sacks from the defensive tackle spot with 6.5. When Williams is not bulldozing into the backfield, he utilizes his active hands to bat down balls at the line of scrimmage — ranking second on the team in pass breakups in 2021.

Williams is gifted with the perfect defensive tackle pairing in George Wolo, who serves as a bigger 6’0”, 275 pound anchor in the trenches. Every defensive lineman ate in the backfield last year and Wolo was no exception — producing three sacks and 23 tackles. Outside of the two polished starters, the defensive tackle depth will be provided by a pair of Hutchinson Community College transfers, Daishon Folsom and Jaylon Bass, who helped lead their program to a national championship in 2021.

Buffalo continued its defensive line excellence in 2021 by establishing itself as one of 21 FBS programs to average three sacks per game. The Bulls ranked 16th in the category for the second consecutive season, sustaining its tradition of taking down quarterbacks despite an overhaul in coaching staff. While Buffalo hopes to maintain its reputation as a pass rushing power, there is still more work to be done in the front seven. After ranking 35th in opponent rushing average at 3.9 yards per carry in 2020, Buffalo watched that number slide to 109th at 4.9 yards per carry last season.

Buffalo allowed an onslaught of breakaway rushing touchdowns so containing running backs at the second level of defense must be a priority in order to amend the run defense and return to bowl eligibility. Still, the front seven holds designation as the Bulls’ most potent position group, and this difference-making unit should wreak enough havoc to influence several outcomes this fall.