Joe Licata remembered the exact moment his perspective changed. It was May 8, the night he and a few teammates assembled around the television set in his apartment to watch the NFL Draft. The idea behind the gathering was to celebrate Khalil Mack getting selected in the first round.
Licata, a diehard Bills fan, was still digesting Buffalo’s decision to trade up for the fourth pick overall and select Sammy Watkins when the Oakland Raiders announced they were taking Mack with the fifth pick. It was the highlight of Mack’s career and a great day for UB football.
“That was a moment I’ll remember forever,” Licata said Monday after UB’s first official practice of the 2014 season. “It was cool to see one of my friends cross the stage. Then I was like, ‘Wait, these guys are gone.’ ”
And that’s when it hit him.
Mack wasn’t coming back for Licata’s junior year, and neither were Alex Neutz, Branden Oliver and Fred Lee. They had supported him and protected him and led him for two years, three if you count another season as a redshirt freshman. They were his big brothers, his body guards, his backbone.
“It goes from having a safety blanket in Branden Oliver to hand the ball to and Alex Neutz to throw the ball to and obviously Khalil Mack on the other side,” Licata said. “We’re going to miss those guys. Those guys were my safety blanket. Now, other guys are going to have to lean on me. I have to be ‘The Guy.’ ”
Indeed, this is Licata’s team.
It was evident in the way he carried himself while running the offense Monday in practice. He was like an extra coach on the field. He was directing his receivers into their proper positions, giving instructions and offering words of encouragement. It seemed he matured three years in three months.
And then you remember that Licata isn’t the same kid who starred at Williamsville South. Two years ago, he was a baby-faced redshirt freshman who evolved into a starter and was still finding his way. Last season, he made fewer mistakes and continued to improve, but he was still a work in progress.
Now, the baby face gone, the 6-foot-2, 227-pound junior is on the other side of the learning curve. He’s no longer a child. He’ll celebrate his 22nd birthday later this season. He has grown into a man before our eyes. He had the confidence and swagger of his idol, Tom Brady, throughout the workout Monday.
“As a quarterback, that’s what you want,” Licata said. “You want to be the guy. It’s great. The young guys, and even the seniors, look to me for leadership. I’m able to step up and be that guy because I have experienced it. Maybe I wasn’t the main guy before, but now I’m stepping into that role. I have to be that guy.”
Don’t worry, UB’s offense is in very capable hands. For the first time since Jeff Quinn took over as head coach, UB had the same starting quarterback on the opening day of practice. Licata looked sharp and confident throughout a crisp first workout, a reassuring sign.
Licata completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,824 yards, 24 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He had 13 TDs and only three picks during their seven-game winning streak. He torched Toledo for 497 yards and four TDs, a great game washed away in a 51-41 loss. He was a good player on a good team.
Still, UB was never really his team until this season. The question now is whether he can lead them back to another winning season. It’s a tall order considering the players who walked out the door. It becomes less daunting when you consider the man running the show.
Licata enters his third season with his offensive line nearly intact from a year ago, which is one good sign. He also has a complete grasp of the offense. His familiarity with UB’s attack and offensive coordinator Alex Wood, now doubling as quarterbacks coach, should make for a smooth adjustment.
“It’s to the point where I don’t have to think about things,” Licata said. “I can make checks on my own without thinking about it. I see a blitz coming one way, I change the protection. I don’t have to turn around and say, ‘Hey, Coach, can I change this?’ It’s second nature.”
Running back Devin Campbell and wide receivers Devon Hughes and Boise Ross already have embraced larger roles. All three quietly emerged last season and gained valuable experience during lopsided victories. Ross and Hughes were among the players who watched the draft in Licata’s apartment in May. They’re also ready to become more productive players and stronger leaders.
Players leave. Others take their places. The program continues with or without them, a lesson Licata learned from watching the players before him.
Every year, on the Sunday before football practice begins, Licata has breakfast with his family at Milo’s Restaurant in Williamsville. They wear UB football gear, talk about the upcoming season, solve the world’s problems and laugh. Licata was talking Monday about their gathering from a day earlier.
And that’s when it hit him.
“It’s sad. It’s really sad,” he said. “This is my fourth breakfast already. I have one more breakfast to go, and then I’m done. It’s crazy.”