Joe Licata, the record-setting true freshman from Williamsville South, just might be the best pure passer on the University at Buffalo roster. He's opened eyes in training camp with his long-range accuracy, his touch, his understanding of where the ball needs to go.
"He's definitely a very accurate guy," said senior slot receiver Terrell Jackson. "He definitely has the mechanics down. He definitely has the reads down. It's just him getting used to the game pace. He knows where to throw it, he knows when to throw it, he knows how to throw it. But now let's just speed that up and do it 1,000 miles an hour when you have Steve Means and Khalil Mack chasing you."
Acclimating to the speed of Division I football is one of the few hurdles Licata must clear to become field-ready for the Bulls. Could it happen by the end of training camp? It would seem unlikely. But during Tuesday's media day news conference head coach Jeff Quinn named Licata as one of the quarterbacks in the mix for a spot on the depth chart.
"Joe has put himself in that position more so than us," Quinn said. "He was here all summer. The nice thing about being here all summer for 10 weeks, you get a chance to learn the terminology, the signals. You understand what the reads are so when you come into camp you've got an advantage over guys that may not have a chance to be here in the summer. So Joe's really taken full advantage of it. He's been well-coached, I can tell you that. Coach [Kraig] Kurzanski over at South has done a great job with this young man."
Licata has been prepping himself for this opportunity for almost a year. He attended every UB home game last season, his eyes trained on UB's spread offense, its ball distribution, and how it attacked certain defensive looks. That acquired knowledge, summer workouts with teammates and a focused approach in the weight room brought him to training camp just about as ready as a pure freshman quarterback can be to vault himself into the mix. What he couldn't prepare for is the how fast plays unfold at this level.
"The speed of the game is ridiculous," Licata said Tuesday. "I'd like to consider Williamsville South to have had some of the best receivers in Western New York history. But you come to a place like this, it's Division I football. These guys are all fast, they can all move. You think you have a window to throw the ball, but defensive players just close on it so quickly. It's a big adjustment but I think I'm learning it pretty well.
"I have a grasp on some of the concepts but a lot of them are very difficult and I'm learning them slowly but surely. I'm just trying to get out here and just be one of the guys, you know. That's the most important thing."
Quinn said after Saturday's scrimmage that there was enough information at hand to make a decision on his starting quarterback. But the coaching staff threw on the brakes following a thorough review of the scrimmage tape. Chazz Anderson, a fifth-year senior transfer from Cincinnati, was decent but failed to nail down the job with conviction. Meanwhile, sophomore Alex Zordich led the offense on a long scoring drive and, as one might expect, is showing greater poise after appearing in five games last year. Licata also orchestrated a long scoring drive punctuated with a touchdown pass.
"It's a no-huddle offense, it's a lot of stuff on the quarterback," Licata said. "But I think with all the help from the older guys I've started to learn it."
It's hard to imagine the Bulls entrusting the offense to a true freshman after a 2-10 season that closed with seven straight losses. The more likely scenario would have Licata third or fourth on the depth chart and at the ready if needed.
"I'm not redshirting any players in our program until after the season," Quinn said. "And I want every young man to go out there and understand we're going to keep evaluating and putting the best guys on the field. Does that mean all freshmen are going to play, no. But they're kids right now, they have that look like, 'Coach, I'm ready to be that guy. And if I'm not the starter I'm going to be a key backup guy. I'm going to be in one of those 66 slots.' Which makes practice a lot more intense."
"That's coach Quinn's decision in the end," Licata said. "I'll do anything to help this team win, whether that's me on the field or me holding a clipboard on the sideline. I'm just going to prepare and keep working hard so hopefully I'll get on the field."
What seems clear is that in time Licata will get his chance.
"He'll be great," Jackson said. "I can see it now."