ORONO – Many college coaches told Lennard Byrd he was too small to play defensive back at the Division I level.
The University of Maine coaching staff had the same concern, but chose instead to focus on Byrd’s other attributes and offered him a scholarship. Five years later, the 5-foot-6, 174-pound senior is among the mainstays of the Black Bears’ defense and kick return units.
Byrd always believed in himself.
“Once I got turned down by a few coaches saying I was too small, that motivated me even more to play football at this level,” said Byrd, who starred for former UMaine player Tom Loughlin at Kingston (N.Y.) High School.
Byrd is a third-year starter at cornerback for UMaine. He also is a threat to break punt and kick returns for touchdowns.
With a 4.38 clocking in the 40-yard dash, Byrd is the fastest player on the squad. And his vertical leap of almost 40 inches places him at the top of that list.
“If you look at his cuts, his ability to go from a standstill to a high level of speed, his vertical jumping ability, those are all explosive activities that he’s real good at,” said UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove.
Though he often doesn’t match up well with opposing receivers in terms of height, Byrd consistently rises to the challenge. He ranked ninth on the team last season with 43 tackles.
Logging countless practice hours against the likes of former UMaine standouts Drew O’Connor, Dwayne Wilmot and Phil McGeoghan helped him learn against some of the league’s best.
“That just gave me the confidence and I kept improving each year,” Byrd said. “Now I think anybody I step on the field with I have a chance to defend, no matter the height.”
Cosgrove said any doubts about Byrd’s stature were dispelled because of his speed and strength.
“In this game, if you have a size deficit, you have to make up for it with ability,” Cosgrove said. “He’s a mainstay of our program.”
Byrd also has excelled in the weight room.
“He’s been a phenomenal weight room kid for us, as good as any kid who’s ever been through the program in terms of development,” Cosgrove said. “He is, without question, the strongest individual in the athletic department, pound for pound.”
Byrd didn’t achieve instant success at cornerback. He has worked hard to improve.
“It was a few mental things I had to get corrected, a lot of terminology” Byrd said. “I didn’t really grasp the defense when I first came in.”
Now, expectations are high.
“In my opinion, he should be an all-conference corner for us this year,” Cosgrove said. “I’m hoping that he pursues that with vigor and attains that level of play.”
Byrd has be equally valuable in his role as a punt returner. He was an All-Atlantic 10 third-teamer in 1999 and averaged 8.2 yards per return last fall.
In last week’s victory over Colgate, Byrd returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown, becoming only the second Bear to do so twice in a career. His 674 career punt return yards is within reach of record (807) held by Darrick Brown.
“I just try to make something happen, make the big play,” Byrd said. “I figure if I can get 10 or 15 yards on the return, I can help the offense out.”
Byrd would love to get a shot at playing pro football, but knows he can fall back on his education. The mass communications (advertising) major will graduate in May.
“Hopefully I’ll get a job doing graphic design,” he said.
Byrd also is thankful for the opportunity UMaine provided him in offering him a scholarship.
“Now when I go home, a lot of people look up to me and are proud that I go to college and that I’m doing well in school as well as on the football field,” Byrd said.
“I’ve got to thank my family. They really raised me the right way and told me to follow my dreams and that they could come true if I really believed in them.”