There will probably be times in Saturday's game at Connecticut when the University at Buffalo has three quarterback recruits on the field. One of them will be Alex Zordich, the quarterback. One of them will be Alex Dennison at tight end. And the third will be Rudy Johnson, a wideout who has risen on the depth chart because of an injury that will sideline starter Fred Lee for at least a couple of weeks.
It's commonplace to see quarterbacks transition to other positions since teams can't use all six or seven on the roster at one time. That's why Dennison moved to tight end, bulked up considerably and has become a viable part of the offense. Johnson hopes to join Dennison as a factor in the passing game as he takes over for Lee and joins Alex Neutz and Cordero Dixon at the position. Johnson made the switch when the Bulls brought in Chazz Anderson, a fifth-year senior, to quarterback last season.
"I was competing [at quarterback] over the summer going into my sophomore year [academically] and when I got the news that Chazz would be coming in they told me that I probably would have a rough chance getting reps at quarterback," Johnson said Wednesday. "But they said I was a good enough athlete that I could help the team in other ways. And they said I could switch to offense or defense, it was my choice.
"I had a lot of good friends on the offensive side of the ball, at receiver especially: Devon Hughes, Cordero, Fred and all them, so I was leaning more toward that side. I just gave it a chance a couple days of summer workouts and seven-on-seven and things like that and I felt at home there so I just kind of stuck with it."
Johnson goes 6-foot-1, 186 pounds and hails from Owings Mills, Md. He appeared in just two games last year as a redshirt freshman and also worked with the scout team. This season he's appeared in two games and has one reception, a 24-yarder against Morgan State. His role is about to expand at a time when the Bulls are looking to bring more receivers into the mix. Neutz has 25 receptions and six of UB's receiving touchdowns. The other receivers, excluding tight ends, have combined for just seven catches and no TDs.
"It's a lot easier because you have only one person to really be responsible for and it made it a lot easier to transition just for the fact I knew all the plays and where the quarterback's looking and the timing," Johnson said. "I just kind of have that same mental clock that the quarterback has. ... But I still have a lot to improve on. The other guys, they've been playing receiver their whole lives so I feel like I'm always playing catch-up with them."
It can take time for even life-long receivers to adjust to the college game, as demonstrated by the low catch totals of two of Johnson's fellow sophomores, Hughes and Dixon.
"It's not physical, it's mental," said UB coach Jeff Quinn. "The speed of the game, the accuracy, the precision, the proper depth of the cuts and the signals. There's a lot on their plate. I can certainly tell you it does take a little bit of time to get them in there and get them comfortable with all the things they need to do to execute."
The Bulls figure to become more reliant on their receiving corps with running back Branden Oliver likely out with a leg injury. Oliver didn't practice again Wednesday, with Brandon Murie receiving most of the reps. Oliver's absence multiplies the challenges the Bulls face against a UConn defense that statistically ranks among the nation's best.
"This is a veteran group of defensive players we're going to face," Quinn said. "When you look at their linebackers and secondary, every one of them played against us last year and they do a good job playing a lot of lockdown press coverage. They load the box with an extra hat or two and they basically say, look, you're going to have to beat us in the back end."
Johnson is eager to see what he can lend to the offense in a starting role.
"I'm comfortable. I'm looking forward to it," Johnson said. "I just go out there and play like I knew Fred would. He's one of the best blockers at receiver I've ever seen. That's something I try to add to my game. That was my goal during camp. I wanted to be somebody that when he came out and got tired I could just rotate myself in and they would be just as confident with me in the game."