Alex Neutz was standing on the sideline after practice before the season finale smiling in genuine satisfaction.
He knew the kid could be this good, this fast.
“We all knew it from the beginning in camp and in spring ball that he could play,” said Neutz, nodding over to his teammate, redshirt freshman quarterback Joe Licata. “We all knew.”
The University at Buffalo wide receiver — and nearly everyone else in the team’s locker room — was as sold as they ever had been on the young quarterback’s talent and temperament and toughness, just three starts into his college career. Licata ran roughshod over Miami (Ohio), Western Michigan and Massachusetts, completing 52 of 87 passes for 638 yards, with five touchdowns and only two interceptions and, most important, three consecutive victories.
For three games, there was confirmation that the team could flourish with Licata at quarterback. It was a mild winning streak but one that sent electricity throughout the program, an element missing since 2008.
The Bulls were en route to a distressing sixth straight loss when starter Alex Zordich went down with an injury against Toledo and coach Jeff Quinn handed the offense to Licata, the Connolly Cup winner from Williamsville South.
Licata threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to get the Bulls within the final five-point margin of defeat.
“Joe has always felt in his heart, I’m sure within himself, that he’s always known he was able to deliver the kind of performance he has demonstrated,” Quinn said. “Has he performed better than what we thought? No. We’ve seen that kind of success in practice. It was a battle in spring ball as we all know, and as summer kept moving along and fall camp kept unfolding we needed to get him in there and play and play early and he was able to do that.”
It usually takes awhile for freshman quarterbacks to find their way, but Licata never approached the game as if he was intimidated.
“I’ve been preparing since Week One like I was the starter and waiting to get my time,” Licata said. “Unfortunately it came because of an injury but I was excited to get on the field and I think my teammates gave me a lot of confidence.”
The company line for any backup is that he prepares like a starter. That’s easier said than done.
“It is hard knowing you’re not getting that first snap, but at the same time you owe it to your teammates because you know that you’re one play away,” Licata said. “If you’re not ready, then you’re letting your teammates down and that’s something you don’t want to do.”
What’s most impressive about Licata isn’t that the offense purred under his watch. No, it’s his work in the film room and that his head is always in the playbook.
“Joe knew the offense just as good as Zordich did,” Neutz said. “The only thing is he can’t run as fast as Zordich but his passing is great. There was no lack of confidence in the team and we were so excited [during the streak]. It was awesome.”
Said UB quarterbacks coach Don Patterson: “Our goal is to somehow play a perfect game and I’ve never had a quarterback do that and never will but the goal is to try. Joe certainly approaches the game that way.”
Which begs the question: Why didn’t Quinn turn the team over to Licata sooner? For starters, Zordich’s worth and leadership couldn’t be measured statistically and players rally around quarterbacks who play with little regard for their bodies. Teammates called him Z-Bow, a play off the first letter of his surname and a nod to Tim Tebow.
When tailback Bo Oliver missed time with a knee injury, Zordich became the focal point of the run game, averaging 5 yards a carry and gaining 501 yards in eight games. He led the team in rushing against UConn and Northern Illinois.
“At any given time we’re going to do what’s in the best interest of our team and playing with some of those opponents we faced, we were playing without our ace running back,” UB quarterbacks coach Don Patterson said. “Alex gave us a running component that was an even stronger statement on how he can play than many other quarterbacks out there.”
But in the Mid-American Conference you win with playmakers under center — eight quarterbacks have been named the league’s player of the year since 2000 — and Zordich ranked 98th nationally in passing efficiency. In the Bulls’ six-game losing streak, Zordich completed just 46 percent of his passes (76-for-163) with four touchdowns and six interceptions. So when Zordich’s rib injury healed, Quinn stuck with Licata.
“You go with the guy with the hot hand,” Quinn said. “He was afforded an opportunity and he’s taken advantage of it, but he’s prepared that way all year. We’ve seen it last spring, we’ve seen it as a true freshman and I’ve said it many times, he’s really stepped up his play.”
When asked about Licata’s potential, Neutz didn’t hold back.
“I know the old term is, ‘the sky’s the limit,’ but he’s a freshman right now and he’s still got three more years to play,” Neutz said. “You saw what Drew Willy did in four years and honestly I think Joe can surpass what Drew Willy did here. Joe is that good. He studies that hard in the film room, listens to coaches. He gets constructive criticism and takes it well. That makes him such a great player.”
Licata will work this offseason to make progress with the game’s mental aspects: Knowing protections, making adjustments, countering the blitz, grasping the ins and outs of Quinn’s offense. He was a winner in three starts but in his fourth game — a 21-7 road loss to Bowling Green — he played like a redshirt freshman, going 13 of 30 and getting sacked seven times.
“Joe will learn a lot from it and certainly it wasn’t to his liking, the kind of performance that he had, and he knows he has more work to do,” Quinn said. “But he helped us win three key games in critical situations.”
The three games Licata won weren’t against the MAC’s finest teams. Miami was second to last in the league in total defense, UMass ranked 10th in the 13-team league while Western Michigan was fifth. Quinn wants to see more from Licata and hasn’t closed the door on a quarterback competition come spring.
Quinn said Licata, Zordich, redshirt freshman Tony Daniel and freshman Collin Michael, who redshirted this season, “have an opportunity to challenge for that spot.”
Daniel reminded the staff of former Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike when Daniel was recruited out of Georgia two years ago because of his willowy build and arm strength. Of all the quarterbacks on the roster, the 6-foot-5 Michael has the most impressive prep credentials. He was ranked the 41st best QB nationally by scout.com and threw for 42 touchdowns as a senior at Lexington (Ohio) High School.
Then Quinn, coming as close to committing to Licata added, “We certainly know who’s been there for the last four games and done a great job.”
Licata went a long way this season to declare his candidacy for the starting job in 2013.
“We’re trying to be in MAC contention next year,” Licata said, “and hopefully I’m the guy leading it.”