Before Cortney Lester takes the field for practice, some of his secondary teammates catch passes with the University at Buffalo wide receivers. Wide receiver Fred Lee, one of the Bulls’ leaders, is there to greet them.
“They catch passes and I tell them, ‘Don’t drop the ball, you gotta catch the pick,’ ” Lee said.
One of Lee’s daily rituals is taking jabs at Lester, his roommate, who converted to corner from wide receiver two years ago.
“I see why they moved you to DB,” Lee said.
Lester denies he has a case of the dropsies and finds Lee’s quips humorous. His play proves he’s succeeded in making the move to corner.
The 6-foot, 182-pound junior from Miramar, Fla., tied linebacker Khalil Mack for team-high honors with six tackles in the Bulls’ victory over Western Michigan last Saturday, and he added a pass breakup. His two interceptions tie him for fifth in the Mid-American Conference. Senior Najja Johnson is tied with four others for second in the MAC with three.
Lester, Johnson, senior strong safety Okoye Houston and free safety Derek Brim (Canisius) are part of an ever-improving secondary.
“The biggest thing is film study,” Lester said. “I watch before practice, after practice just watching film on our opponent and knowing what they do even before they do it. Know their playbook better than them, that’s really the key.”
The disaster at Baylor was the early-season wake-up call the secondary needed. Defensive backs are measured by passing yards yielded and the Bulls allowed 452 and three touchdowns against the Bears.
“Any loss hurts and after that loss we got the group together and we said, ‘That’s enough,’ ” Lester said. “Every catch, a hitch, a screen, anything, everything, that’s too much.”
Since playing Baylor, the Bulls have allowed an average of 209.7 yards a game and just three touchdown passes in wins over Stony Brook, Connecticut, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan. The last time the secondary allowed a touchdown pass was six quarters ago against Eastern Michigan. The transformation started in practice.
“We pride ourselves in competing in practice with one-on-ones with Alex Neutz and Fred Lee, great receivers, but we compete against each other on the field,” Lester said. “Off the field, we’re best friends.”
Said Lee: “In practice, we go at it every day. Honestly, our defense is the toughest defense I’ve ever played against. I look at the games and I don’t know if I would want to play against our defense. Cortney is really aggressive. He’s making plays on the ball and we talk all the time.”
Lester was recruited to UB as a wideout and was redshirted his first season in 2010.
“I thought I was going to play right away just like any freshman would but they redshirted me and I accepted the role,” Lester said. “I gave a good look and the coaches saw that I was an athlete so they asked me to move positions to help the team out and I said I would.”
He’s been a starter since. Lester led the team in interceptions as a redshirt freshman (two) and was second in the MAC and on the team behind Johnson with five a year ago.
“One thing about Cortney, he’s excited about playing football,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said. “He lives it, he practices that way, he’s in tune to what Coach (Maurice) Linguist and our defense needs and he’s in the right place at the right time.
“You look at the quality play of Najja and the quality play of Marqus Baker, it’s about coaches, it’s about players, it’s about having the right scheme and they believe in it,” Quinn added. Cortney has a tremendous amount of skill to continue to develop and be a great corner.”
Or another position.
“He’s starting to show now he could come back and play a little receiver for us,” Lee said.
UB backup quarterback Alex Zordich did not participate in Tuesday’s practice as he recovers from a concussion suffered two weeks ago against Eastern Michigan.
Zordich did not play at Western Michigan but he is listed as the backup to Joe Licata for Saturday’s game against Massachusetts. Junior inside linebacker Blake Bean is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury as is backup inside linebacker Nick Gilbo, a sophomore.
Bean, who missed last Saturday’s game at Western Michigan, is not listed on this week’s depth chart for the game Saturday at UMass but Gilbo will back up junior Lee Skinner. Junior Jake Stockman is listed as the starter at inside linebacker in place of Bean.
Stockman, who tied for third on the team in tackles last Saturday against Western Michigan with five, will be backed up by sophomore Travis Pitzonka, the Lancaster product. Pitzonka has appeared in all six games and has assisted on two tackles.
On offense, redshirt freshman Dan Collura will back up senior Jasen Carlson (Southwestern) at left guard in place of redshirt freshman Todd Therrien (Williamsville East), who has been moved to center.
Therrien, a former defensive lineman who was converted to the offensive line in training camp, is now ahead of redshirt freshman Andrew Borruso as the backup to Trevor Sales at center.