UB’s starting defensive backs virtually cornered the market in superlatives last year.
Najja Johnson led the Mid-American Conference in interceptions, Cortney Lester ranked second. Johnson made the SportsCenter Top 10 with one of his two picks against Bowling Green, Lester became one of seven players in the country with a three-pick game in the Bulls’ victory over Western Michigan.
The production from UB’s defensive backs picked up drastically over the second half of last season, which wasn’t a surprise given injury-related adjustments made at the safeties and the presence of a new defensive coordinator in Lou Tepper and secondary coach in Maurice Lingquist. It took time for everybody to find their comfort zones. But even through the challenging early weeks the secondary held up reasonably well, as evidenced by UB’s No. 2 MAC ranking in total defense and pass defense.
Johnson and Lester expect even more from the defense this season. Eight starters return. Depth in the secondary abounds.
“We’re looking to improve our secondary and to become more dominant and to make ourselves recognized within the conference and also in our out-of-conference games,” Johnson said. “Just be as consistent and aggressive and violent as we can be.”
“What he means by consistent, aggressive and harder is initiate contact, initiate being physical,” Lester said “We had a great season last year, but it’s last year. We got to come back and go harder.”
Johnson arrived on campus as a walk-on under former coach Turner Gill and made a steady climb up the positional ladder. He started all 12 games as a redshirt sophomore, continued to improve and this summer was recognized with a spot on the Jim Thorpe Watch List. The award goes to the player deemed the country’s top defensive back.
Lester came to UB as a wideout, but the Bulls had a glut at receiver and needs in the defensive backfield.
Lester not only made the switch, he earned a starting spot as a redshirt freshman. He’s had his rough spells – as do almost all DBs – but impressed with his resilience.
“Football’s 11 on 11 but playing defensive back is definitely one on one,” Lingquist said. “You don’t have to be football savvy to know when a defensive back makes a play or when a defensive back makes a mistake. We know we’re on an island and we accept that challenge.”
What is important, Lingquist said, is to continually wipe the slate clean.
“Sometimes a guy makes a good play and five plays later he’s still thinking about it. Or a bad play will happen and five players later he’s still thinking about that play,” he said. “We teach our guys to snap and clear. The play’s over. Focus on the next play. Get the call and focus on one play at a time.”
There’s no resting on laurels at the defensive back position. A wideout who catches 50 balls one year can often figure on similar or better the production the next so long as circumstances remain reasonably constant.
The same can’t be said of defensive backs, who deal not with the known, but the unknown.
“Mistakes falls into one of four categories usually, like leverage, cushion, eyes and feet,” Lingquist said. “So we train those things through muscle memory. And then at the end of the day what we’re trying to find is just some competitors and playmakers.”
Unlike the start of last season, which required some major adjustments, UB’s secondary heads into this season with the benefit of familiarity. They know the system. They know each other. The likes of Derek Brim, Whitney Sherry, Adam Redden, Marqus Baker and Carlos Lammons all played a part in the secondary last season.
“That team chemistry, you can’t explain it,” Johnson said. “Lining up to a guy where you don’t even have to say anything to him and you’re on the same page. It just allows you to play faster and make more plays.”
The Bulls practiced in full pads Friday and will hold their first scrimmage of the summer during the second half of today’s practice. … Quarterback Joe Licata and wideout Alex Neutz had a big day in 11-on-11s, connecting on three long passes. One of those receptions came when Neutz somehow outmaneuvered Lester for a ball with the cornerback draped all over him. … Friday’s practice ended with a pair of two-minute drills. A hookup between Licata and Neutz set up a chip-shot field goal for Patrick Clarke. … The second drive, quarterbacked by Alex Zordich, stalled but resulted in Clarke connecting from 47 yards out on the final play of practice.