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Starters won't have safety net UB replacing stars in its secondary

They don't frame the situation as a mandate for them to step up and fill the big shoes left by some of the best defensive players ever for the University at Buffalo.

Instead, senior Josh Copeland and junior Isaac Baugh see it as an opportunity, as their chance to take what they've learned in the wings and put it into a starting role.

"We learned a lot from those guys on and off the field," Copeland said. "We've had guys who have been patiently waiting their turn. Now it's our turn to shine."

"All we can do is worry about now and keep pushing toward our goal," Baugh added.

Stepping out of the shadows will be no small task.

Copeland and Baugh will be the starting safeties for the Bulls when the team opens the season at offensively-explosive Pitt on Sept. 3. They take over those roles from Davonte Shannon and Domonic Cook, a pair of first-team All-Mid-American Conference selections who signed NFL free agent deals this summer. (Shannon is in camp with Washington; Cook signed with the Bills but injured his knee.)

Consider that Shannon is a four-time first-team All-MAC selection and Buffalo's all-time leading tackler with 461 career tackles, including 258 solo stops. He was complemented by Cook, a graduate of St. Joe's who was named the Bulls' most valuable player last season with six interceptions (ranking fifth in the nation) and 58 tackles.

Cornerback Josh Thomas (58 tackles, two sacks, one interception) was drafted by Dallas, putting three members of last season's secondary in NFL training camps.

The loss of experience, talent and leadership leaves observers questioning the back end of the Bulls' defense, but for head coach Jeff Quinn, it also helps to set the tone for a new group of hungry, young players.

"All programs go through this -- having guys who are seniors graduate," Quinn said. "Three of them are now playing in the NFL, so you know you had a good group of kids back there. But for the players this year, this is their opportunity."

Copeland is making the move to safety after spending time as a defensive back and linebacker. Last year he made 26 tackles in seven games. Baugh got most of his playing time with the special teams unit. Quinn likes more than their talent.

"I like their communication," Quinn said of Copeland and Baugh. "I think the safeties are such an important position as far as communication goes, to make sure that everyone's on the same page and understanding the coverages and adjustments that we're making in the back end. Those two have done a real nice job doing that.

"And then, they're coming up and making plays when needed. We tell them, just make the plays you're coached to make, that this defense needs you to make. Don't try to do anything more than just that and I think they've been able to settle themselves into understanding their role. I'm excited for those two kids. They're hard hitters. They like this game. They're physical guys. We certainly look for that to inspire our defense."

While the coaching staff has been encouraging Copeland and Baugh to be even more vocal on the field, the key for the players comes in formulating trust throughout the defensive unit.

"Everybody has a job to do and once everybody executes, we'll win the down," Baugh said. "Everybody has to be able to know their job and know their abilities and our defense feeds right off that. When everybody does their job, the whole defense works and then we can come out and be successful."

"It's not about worrying about other guys," Copeland added. "It's about having trust in your teammates. I trust that Isaac is going to do his job. Courtney is going to do his job. The front seven are going to do their job. They trust that I'm going to do my job. Once we've got that trust then we're going to get it rolling."

email: amoritz@buffnews.com