Joe Licata was looking for the proper frame of mind going into the football season, so earlier this week he spent a few days connecting with two of his deepest passions: history and football. New England is rich with both, so the UB quarterback made the seven-hour drive to Boston with his father and cousin.
Licata visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a must-see for any self-respecting tourist and JFK junkie. The highlight of his three-day visit came Monday, when he grabbed fifth-row tickets to Patriots’ training camp. That was a must-see for any self-respecting quarterback and Tom Brady junkie.
The redshirt sophomore was almost apologetic Thursday for gushing over Brady, as if he were ashamed as a Bills fan to say anything positive about the Patriots. He made a point to say how much he hated the Patriots while praising his idol. No apology was necessary, of course. You need not be a Patriots fan to understand the greatness of their quarterback. Brady is a consummate professional and proven winner.
If anything, Licata showed he has good taste.
Licata has been a Bills’ season-ticket holder with his father since fourth grade and has watched Brady dominate his favorite team for more than a decade. Licata already worshipped the guy, but he came away with an even greater appreciation for him after studying Brady from close range and seeing how he approached practice.
“He took every snap like it was Monday Night Football against the Colts,” Licata said. “He was just as fired up that day as I’ve seen him on Sundays against the Bills. He was in that mindset. He was that focused. That’s what I’m going to take into camp this year and into practices. I’m practicing every day like it’s the MAC Championship.”
No wonder why Licata couldn’t wait to get on the field Monday, when UB opens training camp with him as the starting quarterback. He took over for injured starter Alex Zordich last season and refused to give back the job. UB won three of its final four games with the former Williamsville South star running the offense.
It marks the first time since Jeff Quinn took over as coach that the starting quarterback position wasn’t up for grabs going into the season. UB has mostly struggled under Quinn, who was portrayed as an offensive mastermind when he was hired. The Bulls’ offense has been their biggest issue in recent years, largely because they lacked consistency at quarterback.
Licata brought stability to the offense with his strong arm and sharp mind. He threw for 806 yards and five touchdowns over the final four games, including a three-game winning streak. He has the potential to become a top quarterback in the conference. He has good players around him at skill positions, which will only help him.
Branden Oliver was a dominant back last season before getting injured. He’s likely headed for the NFL after this year. If UB can establish a strong running game around him, it will take pressure off Licata. Alex Neutz had more than 1,000 yards receiving and 11 TDs last season. Fred Lee is a deep threat and dangerous in the open field.
Licata knows he needs to play well if UB is going to improve on its 4-8 record and challenge in the conference. The offense usually begins and ends with the quarterback, the leader on the field. He’s is more confident going into his second season, and he could sense during spring practice that his teammates had more faith in him.
“They were looking to me, not at me, for leadership and to put the ball where it needed to go and really lead the offense,” he said. “When I was a freshman, I was looking to them for leadership and advice. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to be ‘the guy’ instead of looking to other guys to help me out. I’m ready to lead.”
Licata, a history major who is bright and mature beyond his years, plans to become a coach someday. He understands the value of learning from people before him. He was a high school freshman in 2008, when he attended nearly every UB home game and watched Drew Willy lead the Bulls to the MAC Championship.
Willy wore No. 16, the same number Licata will be wearing again this season. Licata envisioned himself in the same position, running the offense, taking command in the huddle, making the right throws and winning. Four days after watching Brady, there was a sense Licata was entering the season with the right mindset.
“Seeing my favorite player do what he does best, it got me ready for camp,” Licata said. “The main goal is putting a ring on your finger.
“When I was at Patriots camp, Tedy Bruschi was getting inducted into their Hall of Fame that day. He said, “All we play for is free T-shirts and free hats.’ I thought that was pretty cool. That’s what we’re playing for this year. At the end of the day, that’s all we want. I want a hat on my head and a shirt on my back that says, ‘MAC Champs.’ ”