2013 Buffalo Preview – Defense

Posted Jun 10, 2013

CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Buffalo Bulls Defense

Buffalo Bulls

Preview 2013 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: The defense turned into something fantastic under coordinator Lou Tepper, finishing second in the MAC and 37th in the nation allowing just 364 yards per game. The pass rush is phenomenal with all-star linebacker Khalil Mack a dominant force in the backfield and end Colby Way a bruiser who works his way to big plays. The entire two-deep is back in the secondary helped by two terrific corners in Najja Johnson and Cortney Lester who combined for nine of the team's 13 picks. Depth is an issue up front and finding a nose guard to replace Wyatt Cahill and end Steven Means could be tough, but overall this should be one of the league's top three defenses. Now this group has to start taking the ball away after coming up with just three recovered fumbles on the year.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Khalil Mack, 94
Sacks: Khalil Mack, 8
Interceptions: Najja Johnson, 5

Star of the defense: Senior LB Khalil Mack
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior DE/DT Kristian Sokoli
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Marqus Baker
Best pro prospect: Mack
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Mack, 2) DE Colby Way, 3) LB Lee Skinner
Strength of the defense: Secondary, Pass Rush
Weakness of the defense: Front Seven Depth, Takeaways

Defensive Line

Senior Colby Way is the only returning starter, and he's a great one making 58 tackles with seven sacks, a pick and 10.5 tackles for loss as a try-hard workhorse of a 3-4 end. At 6-4 and 270 pounds he's big, tough and is always working. The State College, PA native has a great work ethic and the size to be even tougher against the run while continuing to work his way into the backfield.

Losing longtime starter Steven Means will be tough after he finished third on the team with 77 tackles, and now it's up to JUCO transfer Beau Bachtelle to become a decent end on the other side of Way after making 11 tackles in a reserve role. At 6-5 and 272 pounds he has the size, and while he's not going to be a top pass rusher, he has the size to be effective against the run. Wyatt Cahill is gone on the nose, but 6-5, 280-pound junior Kristjan Sokoli should be able to handle the work after seeing time both inside and out finishing with 20 tackles with three tackles for loss. He's an active all-around defender who should be able to handle the work in a rotation with Dalton Barksdale, a versatile lineman who can move to end if needed after making 12 tackles behind Way.

Watch Out For … the redshirt freshmen. 6-2, 292-pound Andrew Burgio I built for the UB line to play on the nose, while 6-4, 252-pound Max Perisse is a quick option on the outside who could turn into a speed rusher. At 6-0 and 285 pounds, Kyle Winfield is a fireplug in the middle, and now the former JUCO transfer should be able to fill in the depth.
Strength: Size. By design this is a large front three, and while it didn't always translate into big production against the run, this is a good group that can hold up while also get into the backfield.
Weakness: Experience. Way is a star and Sokoli is ready to do more, but overall this is going to be a big of a concern with so many untested reserves. This could be a disaster if injuries strike early.
Outlook: The defensive front might not have too many sure things, but it's big, feisty and should be able to do what it has to so the linebacking corps can shine. Way is going to get a long look as a late-round NFL draft prospect, and everything will fill in around him.
Unit Rating: 5


Back for another big year is senior Khalil Mack, one of the nation's best all-around linebackers and one of the most productive with a team-leading 94 tackles with eight sacks, 21 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles last season. With 41.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks over the last two seasons, he's a devastating pass rusher who makes big things happen whenever he's sent flying into the backfield. At 6-3 and 245 pounds he has good size and is a guided missile when he gets a beat on a ball carrier. The one-time star recruit out of Florida is more like a hybrid defensive end and linebacker, but no matter what he does, he comes up with the play. It'll be a fight to find the outside starter on the other side of Mack. Junior Kendall Roberson isn't huge at 6-2 and 227 pounds, but he can move. A special teamer so far, he'll get a long look on the outside along with a slew of untested prospects.

Mack gets all the accolades, but junior Lee Skinner is a good one in the interior with all-star talent, too, making 89 tackles with five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 226 pounds he's not huge, but he's tough as nails and is extremely active. A sure-thing tackler, he doesn't miss anything. He'll work next to junior Jake Stockman, who spent last season in a rotation and got five starts, finishing fourth on the team with 59 tackles with 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. At 6-2 and 235 pounds he has decent size and is tough as nails against the run.

Watch Out For … Stockman. He showed a little bit of what he could do in a rotation with Willie Moseley, and now it's his time to shine. Mack might be a star, but it wouldn't be a stunner if Stockman led the team in tackles.
Strength: Mack and Skinner. The Bulls have two of the best linebackers in the MAC with these two, and Stockman isn't far behind. These two should combine for well over 150 tackles again and are great ones to build a defense around.
Weakness: Depth. Uh oh. UB always finds playmaking linebackers, but there's almost no developed depth to count on and it's going to take several weeks before the right rotation is found.
Outlook: This might be the team's most talented area up top, but there's a huge dropoff to the second team at the moment. Depth is a problem and it's going to take a while to find the right rotation, but as long as Mack, Stockman and Skinner are talents who should be the rock of a solid D.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

All four starters are back led by the corners and playmaker Cortney Lester, a 6-0, 179-pound junior who came up with four picks – led by a three-interception day against Western Michigan - and six broken up passes with 39 tackles. The former wide receiver isn't going to blow anyone up, but he's surprisingly physical and he's great when the ball is in the air. 6-0, 182-pound senior Najja Johnson broke up 15 passes two years ago and last year came up with six with a team-leading five picks along with 43 tackles. The former walk-on is a terrific ball hawker who has become dangerous enough to make opposing teams avoid him. He closes extremely well. Sophomore Marquis Baker turned into a nice part of the rotation with 17 tackles and six broken up passes. At 5-10 and 177 pounds he's not all that big, but he's a playmaker.

6-0, 201-pound senior Okoye Houston has been a steady veteran strong safety with big hitting ability to go along with great speed and range. He only came up with 27 tackles with a pick, a sack and three tackles for loss, but he was a bit banged up and became part of a rotation at times. Senior Adam Redden was a key fast backup after coming over from the offensive side, and now the former wide receiver should be able to do even more at either safety spot after making 27 tackles with a pick. 6-0, 188-pound senior Derek Brim came on when injuries struck starting five times and making 47 stops with two broken up passes, but junior Witney Sherry is the best free safety option after starting the first half of last year making 40 tackles with three broken up passes before missing the second half with a shoulder injury.

Watch Out For … Baker. There needs to be a spot for him somewhere in the secondary. He produced whenever he was on the field and showed the ability and potential to be one of the team's better shutdown playmakers.
Strength: Experience. With all four starters returning along with good depth for each spot, the Bulls are loaded with more than enough options to come up with a nice rotation and seamlessly move in and out between nickel and dime formations.
Weakness: Safeties against the pass. Houston, Redden, Brim and Sherry aren't bad, but the big plays when the ball is in the air come from the corners. The safeties are great against the run and fine against the pass, but they have to come up with more gamechanging plays.
Outlook: The secondary did a fantastic job throughout the year helped by a great pass rush. The corners should be among the best in the MAC and the safeties have enough depth to come up with a nice rotation. This is the team's deepest area with the entire two-deep returning for all four spots.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

The punting game has to be far better after finishing with the third-worst average in the nation. Sophomore Tyler Grassman got the call as a true freshman, but he only averaged 35.3 yards per kick. On the plus side, he put 19 inside the 20 with a whopping 28 fair catches. Now he has to get more blast on his kicks. The kicking game is also set with junior Patrick Clarke returning after nailing 11-of-15 field goals. He has a good enough leg to connect on just about anything inside of 50 yards, but he missed a few chippies from close range.

The awful return game needs a big boost after averaging just 5.1 yards per try. Cordero Dixon is fast, but he averaged a pathetic 3.1 yards per punt return, while safety Okoye Houston came up with a mere 19.1 yards per kickoff return.

Watch Out For … more from Gressman. His longest kick was a mere 58 yards, but he was terrific at placing the ball. Now he needs help from his coverage team.
Strength: Experience. Everyone is back. The young kickers should keep growing into their respective jobs, and all the top returners are back. However …
Weakness: Just about everything but the placekicker. Grassman is fine, but he needs to come up with a few bigger kicks. The return games were among the worst in America, and the coverage teams were abysmal.
Outlook: Considering the team came up with so many close losses, being better here is a must. There's hope with young kickers looking to do a little more, but the coverage teams and return games have to be far, far better.
Unit Rating: 4
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