When Lou Tepper watches Jake Stockman on the football field it makes him feel like he's in college again. Tepper, the University at Buffalo defensive coordinator, knows all about players like Stockman. He sat behind one at Rutgers and at first it drove him crazy.
"Honestly, he reminds me of a kid who played in front of me when I was a sophomore," Tepper said of Stockman. "And I couldn't understand it. I went to the coach and I said, 'Coach, I don't understand why I'm not playing ahead of him. I'm faster. I'm stronger. I know what I'm doing.'
"And he said, 'You're right, Tep. You're right on all those. The reason he's playing in front of you is he makes the other 10 guys better. You don't.'
"It was a great lesson."
Stockman starred on a Joliet Catholic team that's long been a dominant force in Illinois high school football. Hilltopper head coach Dan Sharp often cited Stockman's leadership skills and his work ethic as quiet factors in the team's success. But those qualities alone wouldn't have been enough to earn Stockman a Division I scholarship. He had to overcome limitations in speed and raw athletic ability by cultivating strengths few others possessed.
"I had a really good high school coach who played a couple years Division I," Stockman said. "He was a guy who flat-out said, 'You're not a prime athlete. If you want to be successful at these schools then you're going to have to do this, this and this. You're going to have to be smarter than people on the field. You're going to have to want it harder than people on the field. I took that a lot to heart then and I try to apply it now with my work ethic and just studying the game and being one step up mentally on my competition."
It's that mental edge that enabled Stockman to slip into the starting lineup when linebacker Jaleel Verser became an offseason academic casualty.
It was a notable leap. As a redshirt freshman Stockman played predominantly on special teams.
Now he is second on the Bulls in tackles (13) heading into Wednesday night's nationally televised MAC opener against Kent State at UB Stadium. However, he makes perhaps his greatest contribution through quick recognition of offenses.
"Stockman gets out calls quickly," Tepper said. "He puts people at ease because they know what the check is. And it makes so much difference, you getting a check five seconds before the play as opposed to two seconds before the play. It's huge. And that's what he brings to the table."
"I know my role," Stockman said. "I know that I'm not the fastest or the strongest or the most athletic. I'm not going to make the most skill plays. But I do know that if I know what's going on pre-snap and through film study . "
Colleges closer to his hometown had an interest in Stockman. He could have been a preferred walk-on for at least one Big Ten school, Northwestern. But he thought a Mid-American Conference school was the best fit and he visited UB the same weekend that coach Turner Gill announced he was moving on to Kansas. A familiarity with Gill's replacement, Jeff Quinn, cemented Stockman's decision.
"I was out here and I loved it," he said. "I loved the guys, I loved the area. When the coaching change happened, Coach Quinn is a guy who was at Central [Michigan] and I knew about him. I knew that he was a winner. I came from a high school that won a lot and I wanted to be under a coach that won a lot. So I came here with Coach Quinn."
Stockman takes nothing for granted regarding his rise on the depth chart. Every week he immerses himself in the opponent's game tapes to ready himself and the rest of the defense for what they'll likely see throughout the course of a game.
"Coach Tep helped that a lot," said Stockman, who goes 6-foot-2, 235 pounds. "Sitting down and listening to him watch film has completely evolved my game like nothing to do with being on the field, just looking at the opposing team and learning about them."
"He studies," Tepper said. "He knows where he's supposed to be. Is he the most gifted linebacker in our league? Probably not. But he is so instinctive. He works at it. He's a much better player than I anticipated just seeing him in the winter program workout."