Graduation Day at Fairborn High was drawing near and Lee Skinner still had no idea where he’d go from there. He was sure he could play Division I college football but apparently no one else shared his view. He was still without a scholarship offer near the end of winter wrestling season, which is when serendipity made its grand entrance.
Among those wrestling with Skinner at the Ohio districts was Ryan Quinn, younger son of Jeff Quinn, who a few months earlier had taken the head job at UB. Skinner and the coach had spoken in the past without an end result. But this renewing of acquaintances planted another seed.
“We kind of went from there,” Skinner said. “We really didn’t know what was going to happen. He didn’t have a spot at the time but I ended up being lucky enough. I got offered in spring my senior year.”
That’s how Skinner came to make the journey from Dayton, Ohio, near the heart of MAC country, to the geographical fringe that is UB. And all he’s done since his arrival is make an instant impact at inside linebacker and improve with seemingly every game.
As a redshirt freshman last season, Skinner finished second on the Bulls in tackles with just two fewer than senior linebacker Fred Branch. This year he’s in a tight battle for the team lead with all-MAC linebacker Khalil Mack, with Skinner holding a three-tackle advantage, although Mack’s played one fewer game.
But it’s not just Skinner’s tackle count that has opened eyes again this season. It’s the how and where. Last year he had five tackles for losses; this season the number’s up to 7.5 with an average loss of almost 6 yards. Sack-less a year ago, this time around Skinner has five, one-half less than team co-leaders Mack and Colby Way. The first forced fumble of his career, two weeks ago against Miami (Ohio), was vital to UB’s 27-24 victory that snapped a six-game losing streak. His nine tackles in last week’s victory over Western Michigan tied for the team-high.
“I really felt he played one of his best games,” Quinn said. “He’s operating the defense. He’s making the checks. He’s getting everybody on the same page and he’s going out there and delivering and that’s exciting.”
“He’s a special player,” Mack said. “He’s been working hard ever since he got here. I’m proud of him. He took a lot of strides to get to where he’s at and it’s good to see his growth, but I already knew he was going to be a great player.”
Skinner looked at last year as a test of survival. The linebacking corps was filled with players he admired. His main motivation was a fear of letting them down.
“I see all these guys around me that are so good, and when I came out as a freshman just wide-eyed I just wanted to play up to where people expected me to,” Skinner said. “I was just trying to be a role player and just do my job every time. Just try not to mess up and do what I’m supposed to.
“This year was like you always want to do your job, want to do the same thing, but you just keep pushing even harder and get better off the field and try to carry that onto the field because the guys around you are going to help you get better but you got to want it for yourself, too.”
The youth movement UB launched on defense last year has paid off. The Bulls held three opponents to 25 points or fewer last season. This year the number is six, including a current streak of four in a row.
“Now we’re at the point where we’re happy about some things but we just want to keep getting better,” Skinner said. “We’re definitely not fulfilled yet.”
Fulfillment will have to wait. Talk of a Mid-American Conference championship died early this season under the weight of a challenging schedule. But next season? The Bulls lose just one season-long starter, defensive end Steven Means, and return eight of their current top 10 tacklers.
“We just want to keep getting better,” Skinner said.