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Sure, his Buffalo Bulls posted a five win season in 2007- an almost unthinkable prospect just two short years ago- and sure, they managed to share a piece of the MAC East Title despite dropping two of their last three games. But when it comes to the way last season finished the third year head coach isn’t ready to let his team off the hook, despite seeing some very strong indicators of improvement just a week into fall camp.
“Guys are still a little ticked off from last year” said the 46-year old head coach and former Nebraska quarterback after a recent Buffalo scrimmage. “We didn’t finish the job. We got a taste of possibly being a champion, but we’ve got to push a little harder [this season.]”
And push harder they have. When I met up with Gill after last Friday’s scrimmage, he expressed confidence in the progression of his squad, which he says is noticeably faster and playing with greater confidence only a week into the preseason. Upbeat about the physicality and intensity he’s seen since moving to full pads last Wednesday, Gill told me that he thinks his team is finally at a point where they can meet the expectations set out before them.
“They understand our expectations, they understand how to practice,” said Gill, who was named the MAC coach of the year for 2007. “They understand a lot better how to prepare and of going out and practicing hard and getting better.”
As far as what those expectations are, Gill avoided using the “B” word specifically by name, but from talking to several players, administrators, and staff members it was apparent that the still-building program is thinking bowl berth in 2008.
“After the success we had last year, everybody’s mindset is that we’ve got to make a bowl game” said Mike Newton, a junior free safety who notched 86 tackles and 4 interceptions a year ago. Starting quarterback Drew Willy concurred, saying that both challenging for a MAC Title and going to a bowl game were the ultimate goals for the program in 2008, just stopping short of saying this season would represent a “bowl or bust” campaign for the veteran team. Perhaps a minor accomplishment for any given NCAA football team in any given year, a bowl appearance would nevertheless be something of a minor miracle for the Bulls, who had never won more than three games in a single season during their stint in the MAC before Gill’s arrival in 2006. Chalk it all up to Gill his players insist, who has brought about a systematic series of changes that have not only made the program more competitive on the field, but have brought the team and the community closer together.
These changes clearly start with the relationships Gill has established with his players. While at UB’s practices over the weekend, I was amazed at not only the level of instruction going on, but of the way the UB coaches interacted with the players. No, it wasn’t Pete Carroll sitting around in flip flops with the quarterbacks and Will Farrell, but it wasn’t Bear Bryant constantly screaming into someone’s ear either. It was motivational yet not sappy, stern but not without positive reinforcement. It was, to be perfectly unoriginal, coaching at its finest, and the kind of coaching that not only makes a kid a better player on the field, but helps to make him a better person. At any rate that was the impression I got, although in my defense quarterback Drew Willy agreed with me, saying that Gill’s coaching style was “all about relationships” while crediting the former Packers assistant with raising both his own game and that of the entire team. Plenty of coaches have accomplished similar feats in their tenure’s at various schools around the country, but what makes Gill’s case so extraordinary was his ability to seemingly come out of nowhere while garnering the attention of an entire metropolitan area that has long placed all of its attention into pro sports.
It is, after all, no secret that the Bills and the Sabers rule the western New York sports scene, with teams such as the New York Yankees and Syracuse Orange picking up any fandom left to be had from Buffalo and its suburbs. UB, a perennial loser on the Division I-A stage, always seemed something of an afterthought to western New York fans in recent years. The situation has clearly changed with Gill however, as a number of players and staff members admitted to me that the response to last year’s success from both the students and the greater community has been unprecedented.
“There is a great change going around the area,” wide receiver Ernest Jackson told me. “A lot of people are talking about the games, people talking about how they want to come out to games. It’s really a big change.”
So how do the Bulls handle that change, and how does Gill keep his relatively young team focused and hungry despite going into the year with such high expectations? Simple, he just puts on the tapes, or tapes that is.
“We can put on the Bowling Green and Miami tapes…That shows us right away we haven’t made it yet. We’re not going to get complacent. We haven’t really done anything yet. That’s one of the things we say underneath in the locker room; we haven’t done nothing yet.”
The Buffalo Bulls may not have done anything yet, but if all goes according to plan that’s one theme they’ll be happy to throw out the window come December.
Quick Hits from UB Camp: Quarterback Drew Willy was looking sharp both on Friday afternoon during the intra-squad scrimmage and during Saturday morning’s 7-on-7 drills, displaying solid pocket presence and getting real zip on his mid-range throws despite the windy conditions. Willy, who told me his goal is to play in the NFL after this season, may just get that chance according to Sports Information Director Paul Vecchio, who indicated he and senior receiver Ernest Jackson had received the most interest from NFL scouts…While the 6’2, 215 Jackson clearly looks and plays the part of an NFL prospect at receiver, look for Willy to connect with junior wideout Brett Hamlin plenty of times in 2008. Hamlin, who led the Bulls in receiving all the way back in ’05, looks fully recovered from a 2006 injury and was the focal point of the Bulls’ passing offense during Saturday mornings workout. He not only has what may be the best set of hands in the MAC conference, but the dynamic he’s developed with Willy (who also doubles as his roommate) should pay big dividends for the Buffalo passing game this season…While Turner Gill has implemented more or less a “conventional” style offense around Willy over the past two years, expect the Bulls to go to more of a spread based attack starting in 2009. Buffalo displayed several zone read looks with backup quarterback Ed Young at the helm Saturday morning, and the Bulls’ third team offense even went to a Chris Ault look pistol package for a single down later on in the session…While Gill expressed confidence in defensive coordinator Jimmy Williams to have the young linebacking corps up to speed by the start of the season, it has still been something of a revolving door during practice, with no single player really having established himself as a clear cut starter. Just how far are things up in the air when it comes to finding a set of starting linebackers? Consider Domonic Cook, a 5-9 sophomore who started nine games at cornerback last season, appeared to be working as an outside linebacker during Saturday morning’s session…Tailback James Starks sat out practice Friday and Saturday with a hand injury. He is expected to fully recover by the August 28th opener…And last but not least, a quick shout-out to kickoff specialist Gerry McGroaty, who upon seeing my preseason magazine collection professed to being nearly as big of a Phil Steele fan as I am.
That’s all from Buffalo. Next stop Annapolis, where I’ll check out how Navy’s offense is adjusting to life under new head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
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