UB quarterbacks compete in three-man race for the next great

Bulls continue to seek replacement for Joe Licata


For the past few years, the quarterback position hasn’t been a question mark for the Buffalo football team. In fact, it has been arguably the most secure position coming out of spring practice.

In the last three offseasons, Joe Licata was the only name on the starting depth chart at the position.

After four years, 9485 passing yards and 87 career touchdown passes from Licata, the Bulls are looking to fill the shoes of one of their greatest quarterbacks ever.

As spring football concludes, the question remains unanswered - who’s the quarterback? Will it be one of Licata’s backups from last year, a Big-10 transfer, or a standout freshman?

On Monday, the Bulls took part in a late night practice at UB Stadium, gearing up for this Saturday’s spring game. Each of the quarterback candidates, including freshman Tyree Jackson, Iowa State transfer Grant Rohach and rising sophomore Chris Merchant, had a chance to prove themselves.

With the Blue and White game just days away, all three quarterbacks are expected to see time on the field, with the expectation that one can take a step forward and put himself in the driver’s seat heading into summer practices.

However, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Andy Kotelnicki was adamant in saying that the coaching staff “wasn’t in a hurry” to make a decision.

“It’s all about getting three guys out there battling and doing a good job,” Kotelnicki said. “I want to see them continue to show us the ability to execute what we’re trying to do. Iron out the details, operate the system clean, but I want to see them play within themselves and show us what they can provide. If someone emerges, we’ll act accordingly and move from there. ”

The three quarterbacks have been splitting the snaps all spring, and all three participated in one-on-one drills between the wide receivers and defensive backs and received snaps during 11-vs-11 action on Monday.

After several practices, Kotelnicki has kept his eye on all three of the potential starting quarterbacks, hoping to see progression from practice to practice.

“We’re progressing, moving along,” Kotelnicki said. “Going through we’re trying to identify what we’re doing on offense. We want them to lead by example. It’s a true three-man race at quarterback. We’re trying to give them all equal reps in practice and we’re really trying to evaluate all of them before making a decision.”

Rohach, Merchant and Jackson entered spring practice looking to make an impression and get a potential leg up on the starting quarterback job. Each player has a specific skill set that is crucial to success at the mid-major level, it’s just a matter of who outperforms the others.

Rohach has the most experience of the bunch. Prior to transferring to Buffalo, he played in nine games for Iowa State in his career and threw for 1,459 yards and 10 touchdowns over three seasons. As a senior with experience at the Division I level, many felt like it was Rohach who was in position to claim the job this upcoming fall.

However, the expectation that he may be the frontrunner hasn’t stopped Rohach from working hard – he knows the job isn’t going to be handed to him. Much like the other quarterbacks on the roster, Rohach approaches each snap in practice as if he’s going to be the starter heading into the first game of the season.

“I think I have that mentality, but everyone takes that mentality,” Rohach said. “It’s been a new learning curve. This is new with the terminology, but I’ve been catching up. With me, it’s my last chance and my last year, so I know I have to attack and try my best out there.”

Jackson, one of Rohach’s competitors, is expected to be the future of the Bulls at the quarterback position. Jackson redshirted last season after completing his career at Mona Shores High School in Michigan. Jackson threw for over 2,000 yards and scored 36 total touchdowns as a high school senior in 2014, and sat behind four quarterbacks on UB’s roster in 2015.

This year, he wants to make a difference on the field for the Bulls.

At 6-foot-5, Jackson has a similar presence and cadence to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Like Kaepernick, Jackson has shown his ability to throw the ball downfield and elusively move out of the pocket.

Kotelnicki said that Jackson is “still developing as a quarterback,” but also called him an excellent talent, with a “big, strong arm.”

Much like Rohach, Jackson comes into practice every day with the belief that he can become the starting quarterback for the Bulls this season.

“I’m going to practice every day with the goal of being the starter,” Jackson said. “Even though I redshirted last season, traveling to every game and being able to learn from Licata and [former backup quarterback] Tony Daniel really helped me and now, I’m able to show what I can do on the field. I think I’m getting better every practice.”

While Rohach has the most experience of the three and Jackson’s combination of size and speed makes him the most tantalizing choice, Merchant has played the most games for the Bulls and he’s worked for two years under Kotelnicki’s tutelage, first as a redshirt in 2014 and then as a freshman last season. It’s an offense that Merchant “continues to grow more and more comfortable in,” according to Kotelnicki.

Although Merchant has completed just one pass attempt during his career, he looked comfortable on Monday throwing intermediate passes and moving the ball down the field. Both Jackson and Rohach have shown their ability to move outside of the pocket, but it was Merchant’s touch and decision-making that shined through practice.

“Being here for a couple years, I have the most experience with the team, but I have to continue to work because we have several talented guys out here,” Merchant said. “I come out here working as the starter, but all of us are at this point. Having the experience, knowing all the calls, it helps, but I have to continue to work hard and improve in practice.”

The competition to replace Licata is heating up as we get closer to summer practices and it’s still anyone’s job. The 2016 Blue and White Spring game will take place Saturday, April 23 at UB Stadium. Kickoff for that game is set for 2 p.m.

Quentin Hayes is special to The Spectrum and can be reached at quentin.hayes@ubspectrum.com