Joe Licata’s amateur football career couldn’t have been scripted much better.
As a kid growing up in Williamsville, New York, Licata frequently attended sporting events at nearby SUNY/Buffalo, and he imagined himself one day donning the blue and white. Soon enough, Licata was making waves at Williamsville South High School as a two-sport star.
He was a lethal shooter on the basketball court, averaging 17.3 points per game as a senior and setting a new state record for career 3-pointers with 343. On the gridiron, Licata set a school record for career passing yards with 6,671 and was named the Class A New York State Player of the Year in 2010.
When it came time to select a college, it didn’t take long for Licata to accept a football scholarship to Buffalo. After getting his first start near the end of his redshirt freshman season, he never relinquished the job. He went on to set school records in virtually every major passing category, including career passing yards and career passing touchdowns.
Although he became one of the most accomplished athletes in Buffalo history, he’s still flying largely under the radar for the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft. The biggest knocks against him are a lack of prototypical size and elite athleticism. Such measurables get placed under a microscope during draft season, but intangibles like leadership, work ethic and football IQ are where Licata really shines.
STACK caught up with Licata at TEST Football Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey to talk about playing for his hometown team, his personal leadership style and what he hopes to bring to an NFL team.
STACK: What was it like to play college football at the school you grew up supporting?
Joe Licata: It was awesome, it was a dream come true. There was some pressure, being the hometown kid. Everyone wants you to start right away and make an impact right away. But I embraced that challenge. It was an awesome challenge and being able to represent my hometown and have Buffalo across my chest, it’s something I’ll tell people about. I produced for my hometown team—not a lot of people can say that, and I was lucky enough to grow up six minutes away from a Division I program.
You mentioned feeling pressure to make an instant impact, but it did take some time and you redshirted your freshman season. How did you evolve as a player over your career at Buffalo?
When I first got there, I was just kind of feeling it out and seeing if I belonged. I think everyone has that feeling at first, that “oh shoot, did I make the right decision?” But then you realize everyone has felt that and your personality starts to take over. As a quarterback, you’re kind of the natural leader. Once I got more comfortable in the offense and started learning everything and studying film, my leadership role increased. I was a two-year captain. I was the first junior to be voted a captain in the Division I era at Buffalo, so that was a pretty awesome experience.
What was the biggest focus of your training this off-season?
One of the knocks on me is my athleticism. My speed, I knew I needed to work on it. Every day I’m getting faster and more athletic.
You had a chance to work with former NFL quarterback Chad Pennington this off-season. What was that experience like?
Growing up a Bills fan, I got to see Chad beat the Bills a few times when he was with the Jets and the Dolphins. But he was one of the first quarterbacks I remember watching and really admiring the way he played. He didn’t have the strongest arm, but he could play. He anticipated things, smart guy, very vocal on the sidelines. I admired the way he did things. Getting the chance to work with him and pick his brain, I have 10 pages of notes just from an hour meeting with him. You learn a lot from a guy who’s had success in the league that long.
If you had the opportunity to pitch yourself to an NFL team, what would you say?
First, I would explain how much I love the game. I love waking up early, getting in and studying film. I love being in the locker room, being around the guys, talking football. I love making improvements, I love the challenge of the game. Trying to choreograph 11 guys into doing one thing and having an equal goal is something special. No other sport has it. So I’d explain how much I really love that aspect of the game. Second, you’re getting a guy who works extremely hard. Say what you want about the knocks on me, but I’ve never been able to say I wasn’t prepared for a game or I didn’t give 100 percent. So those are the things I’d focus on.
I noticed you were reading Drew Brees’s autobiography earlier. Is he a player you admire?
Absolutely. My dad is a former basketball coach, and when he was coaching, he always used John Wooden as an example to learn from. When I was younger, he handed me the book They Call Me Coach, by John Wooden, I read it and I learned a lot from that. I learned from my dad that if you want to get to a certain level of success, you have to emulate people who’ve been there before. So I’m a big reader now. I just got done with Sean Peyton’s book, I’m reading Drew Brees’s book now, I read Joe Montana’s book a couple weeks back. When I have free time, I’m just cranking out the reading and trying to learn as much as I can. If I see something in a book I like, I write the quote down in my phone so I can go back and look at it. I just try to learn as much as I can from guys that’ve had success. There’s a reason they’re there, and I’m trying to get there. So I’m trying to pick up little things from each and every person.
Some prospects change their diet when they transition from college to training for the NFL. Have you changed your eating at all this off-season?
I’m eating all healthy things right now and feeling pretty good about myself. It takes about a week for your body to adjust to it, but now I’m in the flow of things. If I ate a cheeseburger right now, I’d probably feel really bad.
What’s been the toughest thing you’ve had to overcome in your football career thus far?
There’s been a lot of moments of adversity. When that hits, you can either keep pushing forward or you can be set back by it. Hard work will keep you moving forward. Focusing on the prize but also focusing on every day like it’s the most important part. If you don’t focus on every day of the process, you’re never going to get where you want to go.
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Dating back to high school, you’ve been someone your teammates have seen as a leader and a captain. How would you describe your leadership style?
I think I’m always excited to be involved. On the football field, in the weight room. I’m not able to lift the most weight, I’m not the fastest guy in the world, but I’m always challenging guys to be their best. I think when my teammates watch me work out or do something, they see I’m going 100 percent and they can feed off that energy.