Call on Collin: UAB transfer Collin Lisa making an impact for UB Bulls

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The evolution of the slot receiver has changed during the last decade.

It used to be a position manned by fast receivers who can break a defense, like former New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker. Today’s era of slot receivers are more polished route-runners, who can act like a second tight end on the inside for the quarterback such as the Green Bay Packers’ Randall Cobb.

But on Saturday, the Buffalo football team witnessed the emergence of its own go-to slot receiver in Collin Lisa, a player who matches the quickness of Welker and the explosiveness of Cobb on a scaled-down version. And that combination only gives senior quarterback Joe Licata more options.

After being lost in the shuffle for the first few weeks, Lisa shined against Nevada as he finished a career-high four catches and a 5-yard touchdown reception – the first of his college career. His score came late in the fourth quarter and cut Nevada’s lead to just three with just 8:06 left to play.

“Last week, it wasn’t hitting at all, but coming into this week it was working in practice and I knew some of the work was coming to me, so I was ready,” Lisa said.

Despite the 24-21 loss, Lisa’s performance caught the eye of head coach Lance Leipold, who said he was “pleased” with the sophomore’s performance.

“Collin probably played his best game out there today,” Leipold said. “We have so many talented receivers that we often switch guys in and out to keep them fresh. But with Collin, he made big plays out there, he played tough and certainly showed some things out there to be impressed by.”

The touchdown connection between Lisa and Licata was simple but calculated. Licata called a quick out play with Lisa running five yards and turning back. It was a simple play, but executed perfectly. That play is all about the timing between quarterback and receiver. If one or the other doesn’t fulfill their part of the play, a catastrophe could have happened. But they didn’t let that happen, even though their chemistry is still a work in progress.

“It’s been a play we’ve been practicing,” Lisa said. “We couldn’t hit it at all last week but we kept working on it. We saw the coverage out there and the way they were defending, I knew that Joe [Licata] would hit me with a quick one.”

A transfer from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Lisa joined the Bulls after the program temporarily shutdown. The program has since returned, but Lisa was already in Buffalo. He faced an uphill climb at the receiver position. Seniors Ron Willoughby and Marcus McGill were penciled in as the starters on the outside, while sophomore Jacob Martinez had an impressive freshman season in the slot.

That didn’t stop Lisa. He worked to show his ability to thrive as an inside receiver as he made big play after big play in practice and showed off his crisp route-running skills.

During spring practice, it was Lisa’s “refined work” that was most impressive about his skill set. He was already a good receiver but he fine-tuned his game enough to gain trust in Licata. That strive eventually paid off as he found himself in the starting lineup in the season opener against Albany. He was finally able to put his skills to work on the field.

“We have a great relationship,” Lisa said about Licata. “We threw a lot over the summer. We were out there all the time, just running routes and figuring out timing.”

Lisa’s play has been one of the constants on the Bulls offense. So far, Lisa ranks third on the roster in catches (12) and his one touchdown on the year is tied with three players including Willoughby and tight end Matt Weiser – the No. 1 and 2 options in the passing offense.

But where Lisa has really helped is third down.

Against the Wolf Pack, Lisa caught three passes on third down, including a third-and-6 catch which led to his touchdown four plays later.

As a slot receiver, third down is the most critical portion of the drive. It’s a moment where they’re trusted by the quarterback to make that key catch. Lisa accepts his role and even enjoys it, but knows how important getting that first down is. He just puts his head down and simply “get past the sticks.”

“Third down isn’t just another down,” Lisa said. “Once you get to the marker, you can make all the plays you want, but you have to get the first down first.”

Heading into Mid-American Conference play, the Bulls have shown flashes of the multiple pro-style offense thriving. The running game of senior Anthone Taylor and junior Jordan Johnson gives Buffalo a productive duo, capable of carrying the offense. Licata has spread the ball around and found five different players for touchdowns this season.

But the Bulls will have moments where they’re down to third down and will need someone to get that first down, whether to ice the game or keep the drive alive.

After numerous big catches against Nevada, Lisa has moved from a question mark to one of the more reliable targets for Licata. During the summer, he didn’t even know if he’d see the field this season. Now he’s not only starting, but he’s on his way to becoming Licata’s new favorite target.

Quentin Haynes is the senior sports editor and can be reached at quentin.haynes@ubspectrum.com. You can follow him on twitter at @Haynes_Spectrun.