Jeff Undercuffler didn’t take long to assess the root of his struggles through three games of the UAlbany football season.
“I’ve been trying to do too much,” Undercuffler, UAlbany’s redshirt sophomore quarterback, said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters, “for whatever reason that is.”
Head coach Greg Gattuso agreed wholeheartedly with that evaluation.
Gattuso also said that, for Undercuffler to get back to his old self, he needs to embrace a role that can often be seen as a sign of derision for quarterbacks.
Undercuffler, Gattuso said, needs to get back to being more of a game manager. He filled that role in both UAlbany’s season-opening win against New Hampshire and its Week 2 loss to Maine, but got a bit too devil-may-care with his approach when he threw three interceptions in Saturday’s 17-10 overtime loss to Rhode Island.
“It’s like a bad word within the quarterback world to say, ‘Manage the game,’” Gattuso said, “but I think managing the game is the key to being a great quarterback. He gave us a chance to win the Maine game, because he managed the game really, really well. We beat New Hampshire because he managed the game really well. I think last week he just was trying to do too much.”
That tendency to go after the big play, even when it puts the ball at risk, is something that Gattuso saw in Undercuffler even during the quarterback’s record-shattering redshirt freshman season in 2019, when he threw a program-record and FCS-best 41 touchdown passes.
There were big numbers, to be sure, but also a few red flags.
“He had a great year last year,” Gattuso said. “He also tried to throw two passes left-handed.”
Success, Gattuso said, is often a double-edged sword. It’s a conversation he’s had with a friend of his, former NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski — both are products of Seton-La Salle Catholic High School in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania — who related a similar situation that he was in during his senior college season at Toledo.
“You have success, and people are talking about you, and you continue to push the envelope,” Gattuso said. “That’s really the difference between a great player and an average player is pushing that envelope. I like that, and encourage it. It’s a fine line, though. That’s where the growth process goes. I’ve been saying all along [Jeff is] still in the growth process.”
As UAlbany ramped up for the spring season, Gattuso said he’d seen an increased level of maturity in Undercuffler’s play.
Through UAlbany’s first two games, that seemed to bear out. The quarterback wasn’t putting up 2019’s eye-popping numbers — perhaps to be expected, considering the Great Danes’ lack of fall practices as the team worked in a revamped receiving corps following the graduation of stars Juwan Green and Jerrah Reeves — but he largely kept UAlbany out of trouble and didn’t throw an interception.
That changed against Rhode Island, when Undercuffler too often tried to force the issue downfield and was picked off three times — all in opposing territory — in a game where UAlbany (1-2 CAA, 1-2 overall) was locked in a tight, defensive struggle.
“When you’re in a defensive battle, the tendency is for star players to try to be stars,” Gattuso said. “I admire that, but at the end of the day, the risks aren’t worth it. You’ve got to make the plays that are there.”
Undercuffler, who didn’t speak to the media following the Rhode Island game despite reporters being initially told he would be available during the post-game teleconference, said Wednesday he’s embracing a calmer mentality heading into this Saturday’s game at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium against SUNY rival Stony Brook.
“Just got to take a big, deep breath,” Undercuffler said. “Just stay calm, cool and collected, and everything will work out.”
Though UAlbany continues to work with an injury-depleted group of pass-catchers — leading receiver Tyler Oedekoven missed the Rhode Island game with an injury, while graduate students Mo Jabbie and Mekhi Stevenson have both missed time to injury — Gattuso sees an upward trajectory for Undercuffler over the second half of the season.
“It’s unfortunate,” Gattuso said, “that this situation has made him want to do more. I think we’re not going to see that this week.
“I think he’s going to be Jeff Undercuffler and play his game. I’m very confident in that.”