Putting the UAlbany uniform on for the first time is going to be an almost dreamlike experience for Joe Tortello.
The Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High School graduate, who rewrote the Section II record book for quarterbacks as a star on the combined Holy Trinity football team, grew up “across the street” from the UAlbany campus. In his formative years, he watched his cousin, Ryan Smith, suit up as a quarterback for the Great Danes.
Suiting up in purple and gold has always been a goal.
He’s finally about to do it.
“It’s been a dream of mine, honestly,” Tortello said in a phone interview Tuesday. “That’s all I’m picturing now is putting on that jersey for the first time. It’s going to be a special moment. I’m excited for it.”
Tortello joined the Great Danes as a preferred walk-on, one of four quarterbacks on the team’s roster as UAlbany gets set to open its spring season Friday night at New Hampshire.
With redshirt sophomore Jeff Undercuffler coming off a record-setting 2019 campaign and with an experienced backup in fellow redshirt sophomore Braeden Zenelovic, Tortello knows there’s little expectation he’ll see the field this spring.
That’s a bit of an adjustment, considering he became Holy Trinity’s starting quarterback as a freshman and went on to set Section II records with 7,304 passing yards and 111 passing touchdowns in a four-year career, but Tortello is committed to using his freshman season as a chance to learn while helping the team in any way he can.
“You’ve just got to be the best teammate you can possibly be,” Tortello said. “Anything that the coaching staff asks me to do, anything that Jeff needs, I’m just trying to help — no matter what it is.”
“You’ve always got to be ready,” he added. “For practice, for scout team, just to help these guys out.”
Tortello said that Undercuffler and Zenelovic have been willing and eager mentors for both himself and the Great Danes’ other freshman quarterback, Joey Carino.
It’s a relationship that’s been encouraged by UAlbany offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Davis.
“I know I can just text them whenever,” Tortello said of his fellow quarterbacks. “No matter what it is, football-related or not, I know they’re going to get right back to me. It’s really helped out a lot, having a bunch of older, veteran guys to help me out with stuff.”
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Tortello spent four seasons with Holy Trinity dicing up opposing defenses, leading the Pride to a Class C state championship game appearance as a sophomore in 2017 and a Section II Class B Super Bowl berth in 2019.
Now, he faces a jump from Class B and Class C high school football to the FCS level.
The biggest leap, Tortello said, has been on the mental level, processing a much larger playbook than he’d ever dealt with before and needing to familiarize himself with every minute detail of the UAlbany scheme.
“You can’t just go out there like you can in high school,” he said. “Every yard, you’ve really got to work for. That’s really the main difference.
“At the high school level, you really only had to know what your job was. At this level, you’ve got to know what your whole offensive line is doing, what your running back’s doing on every single play.”
Of course, while he’s trying to master Davis’ playbook, Tortello’s also got to study up on at least six other offenses this spring.
Most of Tortello’s duties will be on the scout team, simulating UAlbany’s upcoming opponents to get the defense ready.
It’s a job he’s not taking lightly.
“There’s no messing up there,” he said, “because you don’t want to slow anything down for the defense. You want to make sure they’re ready.”
As seriously as he’s taking his role at practice in getting the Great Danes ready for what the team hopes will be a return trip to the FCS playoffs this spring, Tortello is itching to finally pull his game uniform on.
One minor disappointment? When UAlbany hosts its home opener March 20 against Rhode Island, fans won’t be allowed to be in attendance due to pandemic-related restrictions.
That means his parents won’t be able to make the quick journey down the street to Tom & Mary Casey Stadium.
It’s a blow, he admitted, but one he keeps in perspective given the very real prospect that this season might not have happened at all.
“It’s a little disappointing,” he said, “but that time will come.”