Jim Kubiak has seen greatness up close.
The former St. Francis quarterback spent time in five NFL training camps with three teams. He stood side by side on the practice field with one of the game’s legends in Peyton Manning, and he also watched guys such as Vinny Testaverde and Kerry Collins do their work.
So Kubiak knows the traits necessary to be a starting NFL quarterback. He’s reminded of them when he watches Jake Dolegala throw.
“I try to base my opinions off things that I’ve seen. I’ve been up close to those guys, and the velocity and accuracy Jake throws with is right in the ballpark,” Kubiak said. “His discipline with his footwork, same thing. It’s tremendous.
"I can tell you this: He’s got all the requirements you would need to be great.”
You might find yourself asking “who?” right about now, and rightfully so. Dolegala isn’t anything close to a household name, even as a born-and-raised Western New Yorker.
Injury is to blame for that. A torn labrum in his throwing shoulder suffered in the third game of his senior season at St. Francis meant he disappeared from the college recruiting process at a time when several Football Championship Subdivision schools from the Patriot League were pursuing him.
It would have been easy then for Dolegala to concede that his football career was over. Months after his shoulder was operated on in October 2013, he could barely throw a football 10 yards. Dolegala, though, never stopped believing that he could attain his dream of one day playing in the NFL.
Now, with the NFL draft less than two months away, he’s on the cusp of that becoming a reality.
In his blood
Dolegala, 22, grew up in Hamburg with two brothers – Jarrett, 24, and Jadd, 18. Football ran in the family. Their grandfather, Al Bemiller, was an All-American on Syracuse University’s 1959 national championship team. He was chosen by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round of the AFL college draft in 1961 and went on to play nine years with the team, winning back-to-back AFL championships in 1964 and ’65. A center and guard, he also was named to the AFL All-Star team in 1965 and is a member of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
“Back then, not having the head gear that we have now, you can tell that it’s starting to impact him,” Dolegala said of his grandfather, who is 80. “He’s like, ‘Jake, you’re done with school, right? What are you doing now?’ I tell him, ‘I’m going to follow in your footsteps and play in the NFL.’ He says, ‘Oh really? Well, you’ve got the size for it.’
“If I could do half of what he did, I’d be proud of myself.”
Bemiller coached wrestling at St. Francis in the 1980s, starting what would become a lasting relationship with the school. All three Dolegala boys went through Athol Springs, playing football for head coach Jerry Smith and his longtime (since retired) assistant, John Scibetta.
“At first, my dad wasn’t too keen on us going there,” Jake said, pointing out the tuition costs. “But as a school, there’s nothing like it. It’s what I needed. My parents both worked two jobs. It’s crazy what they’ve been willing to do for their kids. I hope to one day be able to return the favor, but they’re not expecting that at all. They just want to see us be the best we can be.”
Jake played freshman ball and then spent his sophomore year on the junior varsity. When he got to the varsity as a junior, he was stuck on the depth chart behind one of his childhood best friends, Brian Melisz, who was a year ahead of him. Melisz had led the Red Raiders to a Monsignor Martin championship in 2011, so he returned as the starter in 2012, meaning Dolegala split time as a junior.
“I basically followed in his footsteps,” Dolegala said of playing behind his friend. “It was cool, because there were a bunch of us Hamburg guys who went to Frannies together.
"We were close growing up, playing pee wee and everything like that, but with Brian being just a year ahead of me, it would have been nice if there was more of a gap.”
Still, Dolegala was at least on the recruiting radar, thanks to competing in camps in the summer before the 2013 season.
“Senior year, that was supposed to be my year,” Dolegala said. “Coach Scibetta and coach Smith, they developed a spread offense around me as the focal point.”
That is, until the third drive of the Red Raiders’ third game of the season. Playing on the road at Pennsylvania powerhouse Cathedral Prep, Dolegala threw an interception. As he attempted to make a tackle, he landed wrong on his throwing shoulder. Trainer Nate Suchyna examined Dolegala on the sideline, and could tell the injury was serious. A subsequent MRI confirmed a partially torn labrum, meaning his season was over.
“It was awful,” Dolegala said. “I had waited that long for my shot, and for it to be taken away from me was really hard. I felt like I had a bunch of potential scholarships, but all these coaches were like, ‘Jake, we need you to get through three or four games and send us the tape.' They just didn’t see enough film on me. I went from being a potential D-I scholarship kid to having D-III schools overlook me.”
There was a very real chance Dolegala’s football career was over before it ever really started.
“His prospects were very low,” Scibetta said. “Obviously, he was devastated. He comes from a big football family, and he was asking himself, ‘What am I going to do now?’ He still wanted to play.”
“It would have been easy to just hang 'em up, quite honestly,” Kubiak said. “That's not something that ever entered his mind. Even at his darkest moment, when he thought, ‘I'm not going to be able to throw a football again’ — he wanted to believe that there was an opportunity. Not everyone has that. Not everyone is willing to do whatever it takes. He is. I think that's a real separator for him."
Kubiak and Scibetta formed a plan for Dolegala to spend fall 2014 at a prep school. He ended up at Milford Academy in New Berlin, the same school Bills star running back LeSean McCoy attended. Scibetta and Kubiak had a previous relationship with Milford coach Bill Chaplick, and they sold him on giving Dolegala a chance.
Of course, that came at a price. Tuition at Milford is nearly $20,000 a year. Before Dolegala even got there, he got a partial scholarship offer from Central Connecticut State, but he didn’t take it. Even though he was buried on the quarterback depth chart, Dolegala had made a commitment to Chaplick, and he isn’t the type to back out of something.
Dolegala took over in Milford’s first game of the season, went 23 of 45 for 363 yards and three touchdowns and never looked back. Schools such as Iowa, Temple and Rutgers expressed an interest, but they didn’t trust his surgically repaired shoulder.
At the end of the 2014 season, the offer from Central Connecticut stood as Dolegala’s only one, making it an easy choice. Milford was “a lot of money when I could have just gone (to Central) beforehand, but I needed that year back. It was basically my senior year.”
Ryan McCarthy, the Blue Devils’ offensive coordinator at the time (and current interim head coach), had previously met Dolegala when he was an assistant at the University of Albany at a one-day prospect camp.
“I just remember observing him and saying, ‘This kid has got legitimate, legitimate arm strength,' ” McCarthy said. “Obviously, he had the physical measurables, it was just a matter of having not really seen it on film.
"When you see a kid who is 6-foot-6, that sticks out, but then when you see a kid who's 6-foot-6 who could throw the football like he could, I mean, his arm was live. ... That's what stuck out to me that day.”
McCarthy eventually left Albany to take a job at Central Connecticut. When the Blue Devils’ coach at the time, Pete Rossomando, was in need of another quarterback, McCarthy sold him on Dolegala.
“I said, ‘If you’re going to take a shot on a kid, this is a pretty good one to take a shot on.’ He had been at a prep school, so he had more film,” McCarthy said. “You could see he got bigger and stronger.”
As he did at Milford, Dolegala didn’t need long to find his way into the lineup. After splitting time as a true freshman, he took over as the starter as a sophomore in 2016. Dolegala would go on to become the school's career leading passer, appearing in 44 games and completing 654 of 1,136 passes (57.6 completion percentage) for 8,129 yards, 48 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. He led the Northeast Conference in passing as a sophomore and finished his career as one of only five players in league history to throw for more than 8,000 yards.
“He's still 6-6, but now he's 240 pounds,” McCarthy said. “Development is a key component of what we do as coaches, and I can say this: He was a pretty easy guy to develop, because he had the right mindset and a great work ethic.”
Dolegala is never going to be confused with Michael Vick as a runner, but McCarthy said he moves better for his size than he gets credit for.
“We didn't just drop him back in the pocket and let him throw it. He ran zone-read concepts; he ran option,” the coach said. “He became a viable ball carrier for us. You wouldn't say he's fast, but it's amazing when we look back and see how many explosive runs he had — I'm talking runs over 12 yards — and he counted for a lot of those runs. The progression he made from junior year to senior year was very, very large.”
Dolegala led the Blue Devils to a conference championship as a junior in 2017, with his defining game coming at Duquesne. He produced all four touchdowns in a 28-27 win, qualifying Central Connecticut for the FCS playoffs for the first time in school history. He went 21 of 33 for 276 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 2:17 remaining. He also ran nine times for 23 yards and two more touchdowns.
“As soon as we won, our whole team charged the field. Our parents jumped on the field, too,” Dolegala said. “Everybody was crying tears of joy. That was one of the coolest experiences I've ever had. My grandfather up in the stands with my mom and my dad. It was like a dream come true.”
Just a couple of weeks later, however, Dolegala experienced the low point of his college career. After a victory against Robert Morris in the regular-season finale capped a 6-0 season in conference play, Dolegala had a party at his apartment. His roommate, who wasn’t on the football team, was intoxicated and started a fight. All four residents of the apartment ended up being issued misdemeanor summons for breach of peace. Rossomondo suspended Dolegala and reserve offensive lineman Dave Cinti, who also lived in the apartment, for the team’s playoff game against New Hampshire. Central Connecticut would lose, 14-0.
"It was devastating, because I know if I played, we could have gone on a run in the playoffs," Dolegala said. "If I could go back in time, I’d do it over again. I learned from it.”
The suspension became one of the first questions scouts had for Dolegala this past season. McCarthy said the Blue Devils averaged two to three scouts every week at practice, and he believes every NFL team came through at least once.
“It's like recruiting. Once you find out about a guy and he's got those physical measurables, they came running,” he said. “Scouts came and watched a lot of tape on him. He became a guy a lot of people were talking about. When you come see him live, the first thing that sounds out is his size, but then when you see how the ball comes out of his hands, it's just different.”
The presence of NFL eyes on him raised Dolegala’s intensity level as a senior.
“It added that little bit of pressure, which was great. You've got to be on your (expletive), pardon my French, with every throw,” he said. “You've got to show that you're a leader out there. You've got to have that camaraderie with the guys. I think I did a good job of proving that to those scouts, because they're still interested.”
Taking the next step
Dolegala graduated in December with a degree in biology. Since then, he’s been back home in Hamburg, working out at Sahlen’s Sports Park in Elma under the direction of trainer Ben Woods, Kubiak and Scibetta.
Dolegala’s Buffalo-based agent and fellow St. Francis graduate, Matt Glose, said his client has turned down invitations to train at massive academies in Florida or California.
“Because of guys like John Scibetta and Jim Kubiak,” Dolegala said about why he’s decided to train here. “They've been my mentors forever, basically. I have all my faith in them. They got me to where I am today.”
Dolegala is throwing three times a week with local products Naaman Roosevelt and Luke Tasker, both of whom are 1,000-yard receivers in the Canadian Football League.
“He's a guy who wants to stand up for what he believes in. It's easy to get pulled in different directions,” Kubiak said. “He felt very strongly that the technique and footwork that he was taught since he was younger helped him become more consistent — helped him to be on time with his throws. From that standpoint, whether you're in Florida or New Jersey or Buffalo, we're all talking the same language. ...
"At the end of the day, it's the work that you put in — not where you're working out. Certainly not it's as sunny and warm, but the work that's being done is every bit as good as anywhere in the country.”
Last Wednesday, Dolegala got a chance to show how that work has paid off when he participated in the University at Buffalo’s pro day, which was held inside the Bills’ fieldhouse. That meant he got to measure himself against UB’s Tyree Jackson, who attended the NFL Scouting Combine and is expected to be a mid-round draft pick.
The consensus among those who watched Dolegala throw is he has a cannon for an arm. It takes more than just that to make it in the NFL, though, which Kubiak can attest to.
“The biggest thing to really talk about when you go into the National Football League from college, in my opinion, is footwork and the speed of the game,” said Kubiak, who also writes about Bills quarterbacks for The News. “Jake’s worked very diligently at operating from the pocket, from under center. His footwork is tremendous. So much of the college game is in shotgun, then you get in the NFL and things change a little bit. You're under center quite a bit. He's done a fantastic job with that.”
Dolegala will get another opportunity to impress scouts Friday at Central Connecticut’s pro day.
“I want to use the platform I have now to prove everybody wrong,” he said. “Even now, some of these coaches or GMs and scouts think I'm a development guy. I don't think so. I think I'm ready. … If you put me on the field with any other guy out there, I think I'll be able to compete, and I just want to prove that to everybody.”
Dolegala admits there’s a good-sized chip on his surgically repaired shoulder.
“Big time,” he said. “That’s made me who I am now. I know I can overcome just about anything. As long as you put your mind to it and you truly have the desire to be great in whatever you're doing, you can overcome anything. I think I'm a good example of that.”
Most pre-draft rankings have Dolegala as a likely priority free agent after the draft, or at best a late-round prospect.
In other words, more doubters.
“I'd love to get drafted. I think I should be drafted,” Dolegala said. “I truly believe that. I truly believe that, as far as quarterbacks, I feel like I'm top three in this class. The scouts and GMs, they just haven't seen me play enough talent to maybe put that high on the draft boards.”