Brandon Berry has been waiting three long years to contribute to the University at Buffalo defense.
He arrived from Detroit as one of the better players in former coach Jeff Quinn’s 2012 recruiting class. Berry had offers from Cincinnati, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, in addition to Buffalo.
But after sitting out a redshirt season, Berry was nailed to the bench for two years as a backup to star edge defender Adam Redden.
“I hated it,” Berry admitted. “I didn’t like it at all. I knew I had to work even harder so I wouldn’t let it happen another year.”
The only hating Berry is doing so far this season is on opposing backfields.
The 6-foot, 216-pound junior has been the surprise player on the UB team through three games.
He wasn’t even supposed to start. But Jarrett Franklin, the incumbent starting strong-side linebacker, has been out since the start of training camp with a back injury.
Berry has been hell on wheels in Franklin’s place. He has four tackles for loss that total a negative 32 yards, and his 18 tackles rank third on the team.
“He’s probably our most improved player from spring till now, and even from the start of camp till now,” said UB defensive coordinator Brian Borland. “He’s caught on. He gets it better. I think he got more comfortable with what we’re doing and he’s been able to speed up his play.”
Borland has made good use of Berry’s explosiveness, sending him on well-timed blitzes in short-yardage situations.
Berry helped make the play of the game in Saturday’s 33-15 win at Florida Atlantic. On a third-and-1 running play, he forced a fumble in the backfield that Travis Pitzonka returned 60 yards for a touchdown.
Berry also had a 15-yard tackle for loss on a third-and-3 run and a 2-yard TFL on a fourth-and-1 run. Against Penn State the week before, he had created two third-down stops with penetration into the backfield.
“He’s a see-it-and-go type of guy,” Borland said. “If he gets a bead on something, he can get there pretty fast. Everybody’s got things to work on. I think we’ve got him playing in the right spot for what he’s best at.”
Playing downhill is what Berry did in helping Detroit’s Cass Technical to a Michigan state championship in 2011.
“What I remember most is how much energy he had every day at practice and how much of a team player he was,” says Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher. “ ‘All right coach. I’m gonna do it.’ Whatever it was, that was his answer. He was an exciting player, full of energy, and he made something happen when we needed it.”
Berry was a hybrid safety in last year’s 3-3-5 defense. He has gained about 30 pounds from his high school days and about 10 pounds from last season. So far he has proven to be stout enough at linebacker. He has a thick frame. He can bench-press 365 pounds.
But Berry still has cover skills to be versatile. When Florida Atlantic bunched three receivers out wide on a first-down situation, UB was able to stay in its regular defense and move Berry outside the numbers to play in coverage.
Sometimes players just need a chance to show what they can do.
“The toughest thing for me was my first year in college, coming from the top to hitting rock bottom and having to learn everything over, working hard and not seeing it pay off like you wanted it to,” Berry said. “Some days I didn’t want to keep going. But I had my mother pushing me and friends pushing me to stick it out.”
Berry’s mom, who works for a health insurance company in Detroit, has attended every game this season.
“She knows I’ve been waiting on this moment so she’s been there to witness it,” Berry said.