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Why UB’s Licata is certain that he can play in the NFL

He traces his finger along the table, breaking down the route with vivid detail. Joe Licata knew he could burn Nevada on a “bender” route.

It’s a next-level throw.

Against two-high safeties, the UB quarterback hit his receiver on this “bend” inside of the safeties. On the film, he noticed Nevada’s linebacker cheating up to the line of scrimmage and the right safety cheating on the dig route, so he checked to the bender again, and again, and again.

“That’s the throw Brady makes to Gronkowski over the middle,” he says.

Here at Sahlen’s Sports Park, the former Williamsville South star is beyond confident.

To Licata, the word “swagger” is overused. He doesn’t like “confident,” either. No, Licata prefers “moxie” and “certain.”

“I’m certain in my abilities,” he said. “It’s just about getting that fair chance.”

There are dozens of quarterbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft with stronger arms, more speed, broader shoulders. Chances are, he won’t be drafted. He’s the 43rd-best quarterback in the draft, per CBS Sports. But Licata — Buffalo, N.Y., to the core — hopes to be the rare Western New Yorker to make it in the pros with his mind.

In his 3½ years starting, Licata threw for 9,485 yards with 76 touchdowns and 37 interceptions.

One sizzling trait didn’t stand out. Yet Licata isn’t concerned, rather, he’s “certain” he’ll make it.

Why? He brings up Kurt Warner bagging groceries at a Hy-Vee before breaking onto the scene. He points to the “Brady Six” documentary and teams passing on Tom Brady. He stresses that Drew Brees — who has the fourth-most passing yards in NFL history — doesn’t have a howitzer arm.

All of them, however, have the ability to command a room. Licata believes that’s in his football DNA.

“I’ll always be thinking through the game,” Licata said, “so I’ll always have that to my advantage.”

Be it that “bender” route or a cornerback to pick on. At UB, he’d study the stat line. If a cornerback had 10 pass break-ups by Week Five, he realized, there was a reason for it. Quarterbacks were picking on him. He’d sit in on meetings with linemen, with receivers. He’d rip through hours of film on next week’s opponent each Sunday.

One quarterback Licata worked with in New Jersey this offseason had one of the weakest arms of any starter in recent memory. And, like Licata, Chad Pennington played college football in the Mid-American Conference. One story particularly resonated. As Pennington explained, shoulder issues with the New York Jets once drove him to visit a sports psychologist.

And the psychologist told Pennington to establish his own “ID,” to write down what “Chad Pennington Football” means to him. So the quarterback wrote down that he’s accurate, a good decision-maker and a great leader.

Whenever the New York tabloid pressure heated up, whenever his arm strength dissipated and replacements were breathing down his neck, he read that “ID.”

“I thought that was awesome,” Licata said. “So I went down and made my list. I think I’m an accurate quarterback, I think I’m a good decision-maker and I think I’m a good leader. And my overlying factor is that I’m a competitor.”

Pennington went on to win the Comeback Player of the Year twice and is the NFL’s No. 2 all-time completion percentage leader — he overcame physical limitations.

Can Licata? He’s certainly a gamer.

He still holds the New York State high school basketball record for three-pointers made with 343 from 2007-11, and his 13-pointers in a game vs. Iroquois is second all-time. That game, Licata was ice cold. He started 0 for 6. Why did he keep shooting? Easy. He was certain the ball would start going in. He lives by the expression, “Shoot to get hot, shoot to stay hot.”

“If you start worrying about the negative consequences of the game, you’re never going to be successful,” Licata said. “So you literally have to shoot to get hot and shoot to stay hot. I just kept shooting. And that applies to my football career.”

He lists off the reasons:

• Not being named a starter at UB initially. Earning the job.

• Gritting through hip surgery and rehabbing to remain The Guy as a sophomore.

• That hip injury never, truly, subsiding. “It was brutal,” he admits. His entire junior season, Licata never uttered a word to coaches, to trainers because he didn’t want to tap out but the hip labral tear lingered.

“I wasn’t going to sit out,” Licata said. “There was no way. I owed it to those guys to give it my all. I knew I could play.”

Also, a lesson from Doug Flutie stuck in his head then. In Drew Brees’ book “Coming Back Stronger,” Licata remembered Brees explaining how Flutie once told him in San Diego to never, ever let any quarterback take his reps. So that valuable paranoia drove him, too. Even as the pain was so bad it felt like he was “getting shot,” like “needles” were jarring his hip, Licata completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,647 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 picks.

In his lone season with the quarterback, Bulls head coach Lance Leipold saw the toughness, the "charisma" up close and notes that about 25 percent of his snaps were under center where so many of his peers were close to zero.

"He's a pocket passer and for teams to look at a guy who's actually had to hang in the pocket and make throws, his anticipation is outstanding and his courage in the pocket is even better than that," Leipold said. "It's all very worthy of an opportunity to get into a camp."

Now, Licata is as healthy as he’s been since his freshman year.

Now, he waits. Licata has a list of 10 teams that make sense, having worked out for two of them. Repeatedly, he says he wants only a fair shot at a roster spot.

A Bills fan his entire life, Licata wouldn’t mind staying home. After all, he chose UB over Syracuse, Akron and North Carolina. He’d bring teammates back to his parents’ house for some pasta — “pounds of pasta” — as a form of team bonding.

OK, so he doesn’t have a cannon. Licata is quick to say he can make the wide-field comeback throw, make the deep post throw, that he has “no concerns about my arm strength.”

“People get infatuated with arm strength but what makes the greats great is anticipation and accuracy,” Licata said. “And I think that’s my greatest strength on the field. People want measurables. People want the 6-5 guy who can run a 4.6 and throw the ball through a wall. But there’s not a lot of guys who can think the game too.

“It’s about anticipating things and seeing things.”

Added Leipold, "Playing in his hometown, he's already taken on extra responsibility. That's helped him mature. When you meet Joe, you see the character that gives him an advantage."

He mentions Pennington again, how he couldn’t even throw the ball 40 yards toward the end of his career but got calls. He mentions Brees. He reiterates that Kurt Warner is his guy. Every so often, he busts out his old-school Rams No. 13 for workouts at Sahlen’s.

He’ll be overlooked this weekend and must scratch, claw, fight through all pain just to hold a clipboard initially.

Fine by Licata.

After all, he’s “certain.”

“If I get to play in the NFL, I don’t consider it work,” he said. “It’s not a job to me. I’d gladly go in at 6 in the morning and watch film and then stay there until 10 at night.

“There’s plenty of ways to play quarterback. It comes down to getting a fair chance and making the most of it.”

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

More on the BN Blitz Blog: Q&A with UB's Joe Licata: 'I’m obsessed with the in’s and out’s of the game'

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