‘Havoc-inducing’ is probably the best description of the 2022 Buffalo Bulls secondary. The Bulls showcased two safeties who forced three fumbles apiece and another safety who ranked first in the entire FBS in interceptions. Only six teams accumulated more takeaways than Buffalo’s 28 last season, and the Bulls struck in balanced fashion — recovering 15 fumbles and intercepting 13 passes.
As an aerial defense, Buffalo was middle of the road with a per game allotment of 227.5 yards, good for 72nd in the FBS. But the litany of turnovers caused by the unit instantly made them a force in the MAC.
Notable losses in the defensive back room include cornerback Isaiah King (28 tackles, 7 pass breakups) and safeties Jahmin Muse (56 tackles, 3 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles) and Keyshawn Cobb (66 tackles, 8 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles).
Buffalo still exhibits plenty of talent as it returns three of its five primary defensive back starters in its 4-2-5 scheme, including one player who suffered a premature season-ending injury last September. Here’s a preview of the unit, working under the direction of first-year defensive backs coach Holman Copeland, who previously served as a Buffalo graduate assistant 10 years ago:
Caleb Offord is the most experienced cornerback Buffalo has to offer. Offord joined the program prior to the 2022 season after spending two years at Notre Dame with zero stats accumulated. However, the Mississippi native didn’t require much of an acclimation period to becoming a full-time starter and he thrived in that role last season with 30 tackles, eight pass deflections, and one interception.
Jayden Oliver arrived from the JUCO level last year and instantly gained starting status. Unfortunately for Oliver, his season was short-lived as he suffered a season-ending injury in the MAC opener at Eastern Michigan. With four games and three starts under his belt, Oliver likely regains his starting spot on the opposite boundary of Offord.
Buffalo also may have found a gem in the cornerback room last December. Operating with a shorthanded secondary for the Camellia Bowl against Georgia Southern, the Bulls transitioned wide receiver Clevester Hines to cornerback, and the result was instant success. With injuries to Isaiah King and Elijah Blades and Logic Hudgens in the transfer portal, Hines showed no drop-off and recorded seven tackles and three pass deflections in a 23-21 victory. The former receiver remains on the defensive side of the ball after that stellar outing, where he’ll be expected to carve out a larger role in 2023.
None of those three aforementioned cornerbacks who missed the Camellia Bowl are on the roster anymore, so Buffalo needed to do some reloading through the transfer portal. The lone FBS transfer acquired was D’Andre Greeley from Colorado State. Greeley was an All-American at the JUCO level but didn’t witness any on-field action in one season in Fort Collins.
Buffalo’s main source of cornerback transfers was the FCS level, which produced newcomers Amir Proctor (Marist), Marquis Cooper (Colgate), and Amonte Strothers (Delaware). Based on experience, the most likely of the three to play major minutes is Strothers who spent five seasons at Delaware with a résumé featuring 72 tackles and four interceptions. But the reality is, after losing a significant portion of cornerback depth this offseason, Buffalo will likely need all of its transfers to produce on a weekly basis — especially in a 5-man defensive backfield.
Redshirt sophomore Demarco Cuffey, who has suited up five times as a Bull, junior Caleb Arena, and true freshman Charles McCartherens complete the new-look cornerback room.
Twenty-nine players were named to the All-MAC First Team on Nov. 30 last year. That exclusive list consists of the best of the best in the MAC. But there are greater honors beyond All-MAC — ones that often turn a blind eye to the conference. One of those honors it the prestigious AP All-American team, and Buffalo safety Marcus Fuqua found his name etched into the list last season.
Fuqua was a dominant presence on the field, and to help attain All-American honors, he let the stats speak for itself. Not a single FBS player recorded more interceptions than Fuqua’s seven, and he stood atop the list — along with Middle Tennessee cornerback Decorian Patterson — with the most picks in college football. Two of those interceptions transpired at a crucial moment, occurring in a tightly-contested regular season finale against Akron with bowl eligibility on the line. He also corralled three picks in a victory over eventual MAC champion Toledo, consistently rising to the occasion when Buffalo needed a spark.
Fuqua, the only Bull with multiple interceptions in 2022, cashed his seven interceptions in for 85 yards, but that wasn’t his only contribution to the turnover battle. The free safety additionally recovered two fumbles, broke up five passes, amassed 65 tackles, and chipped in 2.5 tackles for loss to secure Third Team All-American honors, becoming the second Bull to do so in the 2020s (Jaret Patterson).
Who starts alongside Fuqua in the safety room? Devin Grant possesses a valid argument to serve as the No. 1 strong safety. Grant started the Camellia Bowl as a true freshman last season and racked up five tackles in the victory. With nine appearances under his belt, Grant sheds true freshman status and enters year two of college football as a much more polished safety.
Another player gunning for a starting spot is Demetrius Harris, a veteran graduate transfer from Cornell of the FCS. While holding team captain status at Cornell, Harris produced a stat-line of 43 tackles, four pass breakups, one interception, and two forced fumbles in 2022. We’ve seen Buffalo instantly promote JUCO transfers to starters like Jayden Oliver, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see Harris make that transition in his first year playing in the FBS.
Speaking of JUCO transfers, the Bulls added one to the safety room in Chandler Brown. Brown missed the entirety of 2022 with an injury, but was a vital player on Fullerton College’s defense in California the year prior.
Buffalo also landed Tennessee transfer Jerrod Gentry this offseason, although Gentry didn’t register any playing time with the Volunteers. He’ll be one of several Bull safeties vying for a larger opportunity this year along with incumbent roster members Jonathan Capo and Brennan Clasgens. Additionally, Caron Robinson — who converted from running back this offseason — switched to safety, and although he’s learning a new position, he’s expected to play the majority of snaps on special teams.
Wrapping up the safety room are the two true freshmen — Jayden Lewis and Jamiere Munson. Both first-year players are New York natives, hailing from Buffalo and Rochester, respectively.
Buffalo sends out five defensive backs in its starting lineup — two cornerbacks, two safeties, and one nickel. Note that any of the previously mentioned cornerbacks or safeties could serve in the starting nickel role, but this section will break down the three players with the ‘nickel’ designation on Buffalo’s official roster.
This trio of veteran nickels is headlined by Jalen McNair, who played eight games and started one last season. Like many returning defensive backs on the roster, McNair saw an uptick in production in the Camellia Bowl, recovering one fumble and recording his first two collegiate tackles. He is poised to take on a larger role in 2023, which could include a full-time starting role as Buffalo’s fifth defensive back.
Solomon Brown also returns for his second year at Buffalo after launching his college career in Minnesota. Brown made nine appearances in 2022 and finished the season with two tackles. Lastly, Caleb Tate, a former reserve linebacker and special teams mainstay since 2020, is also listed as a nickel on the roster. Tate likely retains his prominent special teams gig going forward as he enters his fifth season on campus.