It’s an incredible Saturday for college football and one that finds me at home for the first time since late September. For those unaware, I’m the sideline reporter for the University at Buffalo football team and find myself rather occupied on college gamedays.
So I’ve needed some time to give a truly thoughtful assessment of why I was 100 percent okay with Tuesday’s news that UB athletic director Danny White extended head coach Jeff Quinn through 2017 from the moment I heard about it, despite Quinn’s 9-26 (now 9-27) record through three years. While certainly some will point to my relatively intimate relationship with the program as a reason for bias, I’m also an alum who’s watched with great interest through a lot of losses. I’m writing this with potential bias and somewhat-inside knowledge front of mind at all times.
What’s the best way to synopsize my thoughts? Jeff Quinn’s on the right track. The early years of Turner Gill and Quinn are most notably separated by two things: Drew Willy and UTEP. While Gill’s name is hallowed by Bulls fans, Quinn’s has been quick-to-be questioned despite the facts behind their respective obstacles.
Usually when a D-I coaching job changes hands, the new coach is left with a heck of a lot and it’s impossible to tell the story of Jeff Quinn at UB without talking about the cupboard being monumentally bare when he arrived. Possessing a mind revered for its offensive capabilities, Quinn was greeted with a returning starting quarterback (Zach Maynard) who was widely-speculated to be transferring wherever his 2009 All-American half-brother enrolled. Wide receiver Keenan Allen signed with Cal and away went Maynard, joining the team’s top receiver (Naaman Roosevelt) and running back (James Starks), who were off to the National Football League. He also entered his first year with one senior offensive lineman and without safety Mike Newton, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts as Buffalo lost three players to the NFL. Not only that but Jeff Quinn is to the man he replaced, Turner Gill, as Bill Cowher is to Tony Dungy. The strength isn’t quiet; It’s loud and melts paint off helmets. Considering the time a team spends with its coach, imagine you traded TV dads from Mr. Cunningham to Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor.
Which is all a fancy way of asking why Quinn walked away from his seven days old job as offensive coordinator of Notre Dame?
Well, the man wanted to be a head football coach and he thought Buffalo would do just fine, which is pretty much the same reason Gill left a nice job inside the Green Bay Packers. The difference is that Gill walked into work on Day One with a sophomore starter named Drew Willy while Quinn came to the office knowing he had to find someone out of a mix of unproven talent (See: Maynard transfer above). In other words: one of the biggest buzz words around Gill/Willy was the coach teaching the quarterback body language, while the Quinn/QB buzz was when the new coach would have to give in and burn Alex Zordich’s redshirt.
UB’s quarterback depth chart for Gill was Willy, Tony Paoli, Stew Sampsel, Roosevelt and Starks. The first three on the depth chart had starting experience, while three of the group went on to become program legends at three different positions. Then there’s Quinn’s crew. UB’s quarterback depth chart post-Maynard was Jerry Davis, Alex Dennison, Alex Zordich, Rudy Johnson, Tyler Warden and Cory Jorgensen. Two have started games at quarterback for UB (Davis and Zordich), Johnson and Dennison are playing for the Bulls at wide receiver and tight end, Jorgensen has graduated and Warden transfered to Robert Morris as a tight end.
By Willy’s senior year — Gill’s third season — he’d developed into an NFL-style passer. Should Joe Licata (or Zordich) start at Ohio State on August 31, 2013, it will be the first time Quinn has a quarterback start a game in back-to-back years. Notable difference and it’s laughable to go hindsight 20/20 and tell Quinn not to accept the transfer of Chazz Anderson from Cincinnati, who wasn’t brilliant but did some good things on the field.
The point isn’t to argue Quinn’s place as the best coach in school history. The fan and employee in me sure hopes it works out that way. Gill has the school’s lone MAC Championship and its only bowl bid. Given the respective backstories, however, it feels incredibly hypocritical to me to argue against the Quinn extension based on the hallowing of Gill (especially considering Gill’s playcalling and defense continually made me want to jam my un-helmeted head in front of the nearest oncoming classic Buick (if anyone has a 1949 Roadmaster they are giving away, find me)).
There’s no question that Turner Gill put up numbers in Amherst. Armed with Drew Willy — a Jim Hofher (!) recruit — Gill won a MAC title in Year Three before dropping to 5-7 in his final year in town for a 20-30 overall record (14-18 in conference). That ’08 year was good stuff.
But Gill and athletic director Warde Manuel (now doing great things at UConn) favored different schedules. Let’s take a look at Gill’s non-conference slate versus the one that greeted Quinn.
2006 (1-3): at Auburn, at Boston College, at Wisconsin, vs. Temple
2007 (0-4): at Rutgers, at Penn State, vs. Baylor, at Syracuse
2008 (2-2): vs. UTEP, at Pitt, at Missouri, vs. Army
2009 (2-2): at UTEP, vs Pitt, at Central Florida, vs. Gardner-Webb
2010 (1-3): vs. Rhode Island, at Baylor, vs Central Florida, at UConn
2011 (1-3): at Pitt, vs Stony Brook, vs UConn, at Tennessee
2012 (1-3): at Georgia, vs. Morgan State, at UConn, vs Pitt
2013 (TBD): at Ohio State, at Baylor, vs. Stony Brook, vs. UConn
Both coaches have played remarkably difficult non-conference slates for a growing program. Gill’s 2006 remains one of the most ridiculous slates in the history of the Mid American Conference as he played on the road against the Nos. 3, 10 and 17 ranked teams in the country after winning his only home non-conference games against newly-promoted D-I side Temple. The main difference between the two sides is Year Three & Four wins against UTEP, from a Conference USA that is equal to the MAC (the advanced numbers bear it out). And that Army win? Please. They lost to New Hampshire that year and fired their coach. Look for the Bulls to stray from the huge schools as White looks to build wins before strictly capital. Future opponents:
2013: at Ohio State, at Baylor, vs. Stony Brook, vs. UConn
2014: at Army, vs Baylor, vs Norfolk State, + 1
2015: at Penn State, vs/at Boston College, +2
2016: vs Army, vs/at Boston College, +2
2017: at Army, +3
2018: vs Army, +3
2020: at Army, +3
Quinn deserves a lot of credit for hiring not one but two of the best defensive coordinators in program history. Bill Inge did a remarkable strategic job in his time with the Bulls before crossing the county to coach the Bills’ defensive line. With Inge gone, Quinn turned to Lou Tepper. The result was the MAC’s second-best defense (to Bowling Green) and a unit that kept the Bulls in game even when the offense had very few answers.
The depth and personnel on the defensive side have improved since Quinn took hold of the program. Of the starters Tepper will lose this year — DT Wyatt Cahill, DE Steven Means, OLBs Isaac Baugh and Willie Moseley — there are comforting replacements ahead for all but Means (and that’s simply because the Grover Cleveland product was so, so dominant over the last half of 2012). He’ll get NFL looks and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Moseley wind up in a camp if he has a good pro day.
On offense, he loses two four-year starting linemen in tackle Gokhan Ozkan and guard Graham Whinery. If there’s anything Quinn has done, it’s prove his mastery of the OL position (along with Jappy Oliver). The Bulls tremendous offense line had equal depth at running back. Buffalo ran the ball effectively past their starting three-deep of Branden “Bo” Oliver, Anthone Taylor and James Potts, unleashing true freshman Devin Campbell onto the MAC to great success. All three missed time with injuries, as did tailback Brandon Murie and fullback Boomer Brock. In their win over UMass, Buffalo was down to Murie and second-string fullback Rashad Jean (who was a defensive tackle when he transfered to UB in 2011). Those backs, Nos. 5 & 7 on the depth chart in camp, accounted for 170 yards. It allowed them to not burn the redshirt of talented Sweet Home back Jordan Johnson.
I don’t remember the last time I’ve walked away from a UB season feeling comfortable in predicting a starting XXII for the next Fall that will win games, but I can do it (and admittedly without knowing Quinn and his staff’s preferences). Additionally, I’m not plugging in starters in hope. There are a dozen players who could leapfrog my predictions and the Bulls would still be in good shape).
OL – Back, Carlsen, Sales, Davis, Silas
TE – Dennison
QB – Licata
RB – Oliver
FB – Brock
WR – Neutz, Lee
DL – Way, Sokoli, Bachtelle
LB – Brown, Stockman, Skinner, Fink
CB – Johnson, Lester
S – Brim, Redden
It truly is remarkable that a quarterback could go 3-1 in four starts at UB and not be a shoo-in starter, but highly-touted now redshirt-frosh Collin Michael joins the competition with Licata, Zordich and Tony Daniel. We’ve gone through the running back depth (only Jean graduates). Quinn needs to find an ace No.3 option at wide-out but several players (John Dunmore and Devon Hughes among them) put up strong single-game performances. That’s without mentioning the struggles of UB’s top-rated wide receiver recruit of all-time, soon-to-be junior Cordero Dixon. Predictably, UB’s two three-star recruits for 2013 — according to Rivals.com — are both wide receivers: Jamarl Eiland and Dubois Ross.
Whereas Gill built a team around the flashy offense and freaky skill that comes with the recruiting territory of his Southern roots, Quinn’s work revolves around the sort of — pardon the unsportsmanlike phrase — “punch you in the mouth” players who looks like extras from “Necessary Roughness.”
Mental and physical toughness are the hallmarks of Quinn’s recruiting aims. It appears he’s hitting the target. Most notable, perhaps, is that the Bulls went 3-1 in their final four games. Some consider it the long-delayed insertion of Licata for Zordich at quarterback (Zordich went down after playing through but ultimately succumbing to a painful rib injury). But frankly it’d be hard to point to more than a game, maybe two, where quarterback play was to blame for the loss (The surefire game is Kent State, but Zordich’s legs did some magical things in the Tebow/Klein offense proferred when he started the other contests).
I’m no football mind, but my only frustration with the game-calling was the lack of relying on the run when it was working. You run to open up the pass but plenty of teams that feature multiple top-flight running backs should rely on the ground game late in games. That’s my perceived problem with the coordination that I’d prefer to see fixed before Oliver, Campbell and company break school records next season.
No one is going to argue that a 9-27 mark is savory, but credit to White for not forcing a fire/hire just to stamp “Danny’s pick” on his head coach. In fact, the humble move from the big-time basketball guy leads me to understand how a young man gets an athletic director’s job. Age doesn’t matter if you have the wit and wisdom to make the right call. Signing Quinn to an extension gives new recruits confidence that they’ll be playing for the guy who’s recruiting them and Quinn’s team is certainly knocking on the door. One can only hope the Bulls emerge from opening 2013 at Ohio State and Baylor looking strong and perhaps even 1-1. If form holds and the MAC doesn’t add a team and/or UB doesn’t lead the back, their schedule will look a little better next year. In addition to the trips to Columbus and Waco, Buffalo would travel to two teams they beat (Western Michigan and Miami) a team they should’ve (Toledo) and a team they could’ve with better QB play (Kent State). They’ll host a brutally strong Northern Illinois team, but will also face teams two teams they should beat (UMass and Stony Brook) and three tough-but-beatable teams (UConn, Bowling Green and Ohio). Realistically, if Buffalo finds health, improves their offense from a grade of C- to B and if Khalil Mack sticks around for his senior year (he should), Bulls fans can expect — not just hope — to go Bowling for the second time in their history.
Coach Quinn wants the same thing in a football team that Buffalo football fans want. He understands and yearns to build a tradition, to be the patriarch of not just one Bowl year but a consistent contender. The program is on the right track.