AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) — James Patterson will set a University at Buffalo football record Saturday playing his 51st career game. The defensive stalwart in his fifth season starting at linebacker also has developed an aptitude for talent evaluation over the years.
During the 2020 season when the Bulls were ranked among the Top 25 nationally, Patterson was among the first to recognize the potential in freshman walk-on Shaun Dolac.
“Before anyone knew who Shaun was or how good he was, I could see it,” Patterson said. “He’s always been a hard worker and a blue collar guy. I told him if he kept working that hard, he’d make a name for himself here.”
Dolac, a two-way star for West Seneca East’s state finalist team in 2018, has emerged as an outstanding linebacker for the Bulls after studying under Patterson for the better part of two seasons.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup with Toledo at UB Stadium, a battle between Mid-American Conference division leaders, Dolac leads the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision with 53 solo tackles, and is chasing down Craig Guest’s school record of 80 solo stops set in 1996. Dolac ranks ninth nationally with 73 total tackles, pacing for a top five season in UB’s record books if the Bulls (4-3) reach the MAC championship and go to a bowl game.
“I’m not really looking at all that stuff,” Dolac said. “I’m all about the team goals — to win the MAC East, win a MAC championship, win a bowl championship. Maybe when the season is over I can look back on it and be proud, but for now I’m focused on the team and how we can prepare to win the next game.”
UB coach Maurice Linguist said teammates have taken notice of Dolac’s statistical supremacy.
“You walk in to a team meeting and you look at a guy that is No. 1 in the nation in any category, it kind of tells you the significance and weight that they carry,” Linguist said.
Dolac set a West Seneca East record with 157 tackles in 14 games his senior season. His 1,997 yards rushing were also a record, and that experience on the other side of the ball has contributed to his college success on defense.
“Having played running back, I kind of know the schemes and how they are going to make a move,” Dolac said. “What they think when they see a linebacker coming. It helps to have that knowledge of what an offense is going to run, how they are going to do it, and why.”
That’s the reason Linguist and his staff target two-way players in recruiting. The Bulls also covet multi-sport athletes. Dolac passed on offers to play Division I lacrosse to attend Milford Prep Academy in hopes of raising his football recruiting stock.
Accepting a preferred walk-on invitation from previous coach Lance Leipold’s staff, Dolac played special teams as a freshman. In addition to his work ethic, he impressed Patterson with big hits in kick coverage.
“James has been that older brother figure for me ever since I got to UB,” Dolac said. “He took me under his wing right when I came in and has been leading me through the weeks and years, coaching me on how to keep my head up when the days don’t seem bright.”
After earning a scholarship following last year’s training camp, Dolac backed up Patterson at middle linebacker for most of his sophomore season before moving outside for the final two games. He made 24 tackles in those contests, giving him 97 in nine starts for the Bulls. This season, Dolac is starting in the middle, with Patterson by his side.
“Now that we are working together, it’s a blessing,” Dolac said. “I learned a lot from being his backup. Now being next to him, we can both watch film and critique our craft together.”
Patterson said that even with 41 more starts on his resume, he is able to learn from Dolac.
“He’s so smart,” Patterson said. “To be a great player, you have to learn from each other. That’s what he does so well, and I try to do the same thing. We are always holding each other accountable and competing against each other.”
Patterson ranks second on the Bulls with 55 tackles (34 solo). He led UB last season with 116 tackles in 12 games. Patterson also has an interception and two fumble recoveries, one that he returned 98 yards for a touchdown at Bowling Green. The play gave Bulls fans visions of Patterson’s twin brother Jaret rushing for 301 yards at Bowling Green, a week before he amassed 409 against Kent State, during his All-American season in 2020.
“Bash brothers,” was how Linguist described Patterson and Dolac’s dual impact, and Patterson said they have developed a connection similar to the one he has with his brother.
“We’re like linebacker twins,” Patterson said. “We’re cut from the same cloth. Blue collar guys that just want to work. Both undersized, not the fastest, not the tallest, not the strongest, but we are going to out-work, and out-physical you. It’s great to have someone like that beside you. It’s like having another version of yourself out there.”