Despite losing Johnson, Bulls aim to maintain lock-down secondary
Sophomore defensive back Marqus Baker reels in an interception against Eastern Michigan last season. The Bulls defeated Eastern Michigan 42-24 at UB Stadium. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum
This year's Bulls team will need to replace a player who had a strong voice in the locker room and doubled as the best shutdown cornerback on the team, and arguably the best in the conference.
Senior corner Najja Johnson is one of the two 2013 first-team All-Mid-American Conference players (along with Khalil Mack) on the Bulls' defense who will not return due to graduation.
With seniors like Johnson, Derek Brim and Okoye Houston no longer playing, the football team will rely on groomed veterans and young players to step into the defensive secondary.
"You can't replace guys like Mack and Johnson, but you can learn and mimic their ethics," said junior cornerback Cortney Lester, who played across from Johnson for three years.
Johnson led the team in pass breakups with nine and tied for the team lead in interceptions with three. Lester was one of the players Johnson tied with for the interceptions mark. With three picks and six pass breakups last season, Lester is the favorite to take over Johnson's spot as the team's No. 1 corner.
Junior safety Witney Sherry is another player expected to have an increased role next season. Sherry finished with 14 tackles and one interception last season. He is looking to have a larger impact this season, both on the field and in the locker room.
"I feel like I earned a lot of respect for my ethics on and off the field," Sherry said. "We need leaders like that and I want to be one of them."
The defense allowed 216 passing yards per game last season. But defending the pass is only one part of the defensive backs' role. A secondary needs versatility to defend the pass and stop the run in the box.
Enter Adam Redden.
Not only is Redden - a junior - a top safety on the team, but he also doubles as an outside linebacker.
"Whenever I step on the field, I know I will make an impact," Redden said. "If coach tells me to play defensive tackle, I'll play there if it helps the team."
Redden has gotten progressively better each year he's been in Buffalo. Last season, he finished with 65 tackles and 4.5 sacks, both third on the team. He has been able to learn the outside linebacker position from the best linebacker Buffalo has ever had - Mack.
"After being a teammate with Mack, he teaches you things you cannot learn in a classroom," Redden said. "He teaches you how to be aggressive and quick with finesse, telling me to watch game tapes over and over again."
There are also several underclassmen vying for playing time in the secondary, including sophomore defensive back Okezie Alozie, who finished with 45 tackles, a sack and two pass breakups last season.
Another player to watch is sophomore defensive back Marqus Baker. Though he didn't start last year, Baker had an interception and four pass breakups. He will try for a starting position when camp commences in late summer.
"I believe we have the talent, confidence and potential to make another run at a bowl game," Sherry said. "With our team chemistry and promising younger guys, it is shaping up to be a great season coming."
The up-and-coming secondary will be put to its first test when the Bulls play their annual Blue-White Game Saturday.
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