UAlbany football QB Undercuffler embracing challenge, competition after difficult spring season

UAlbany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler, right, hands off to Jose Lopez-Quinones during practice at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium in Albany on Friday.

UAlbany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler, right, hands off to Jose Lopez-Quinones during practice at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium in Albany on Friday.

Like the rest of his UAlbany football teammates, Jeff Undercuffler is eager to move on from the team’s rough spring.

Undercuffler rewrote UAlbany’s single-season record book for quarterbacks in 2019, but his return to the field this past spring left plenty to be desired — especially by his own standards.

It was a perfect storm that coalesced into a spring filled with struggles for the 6-foot-5 signal caller. The fall 2020 season was postponed to the spring due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and pandemic-related pauses prevented the Great Danes from ever putting on their pads during the entirety of 2020. Once the team finally got back together last winter, Undercuffler was working with a massively retooled receiving corps and offensive line — and that was before the injuries.

Injury after injury piled up for the Great Danes, who called off their final two spring games due to a lack of healthy players. That hurt group included Undercuffler, who sat out what ended up being UAlbany’s fourth and final game of the spring.

“It was just bad timing,” Undercuffler said Monday during UAlbany football media day at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium, “and it really stunk.”

In his three spring games, Undercuffler completed 62 of 113 passes for 556 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions — a far cry from the 3,543 passing yards and 41 scores he accounted for in his first season as a starter in 2019, when he led UAlbany to a 9-4 record and the program’s first-ever win in an FCS playoff game.

Undercuffler’s inconsistency was evident throughout the spring, but UAlbany head coach Greg Gattuso said Monday that Undercuffler had “earned the right to call himself the starter” when the team opened its preseason camp last week.

Not that the quarterback won’t have plenty of competition pushing him from behind.

“I don’t mince words about things, when I say something’s a competition, it really, truly is,” Gattuso said. “I always tell them, ‘You’re not the Queen of England. You’re not born into this. You have no right, you have to earn it.’ Jeff deserves to be No. 1, and I expect him to be coming out of camp [as the starter], but he’s got to keep playing at that level to be there.”

Behind Undercuffler on the depth chart are Braeden Zenelovic, who started the game Undercuffler missed against Stony Brook in March, and Joey Carino, who came off the bench in the second half of that game and injected life into a scuffling UAlbany offense with his ability to scramble and improvise.

Undercuffler said he’s embracing the idea of being challenged for his spot.

“You have to have that competition,” he said, “so it drives you and gets you better.”

The Delran, New Jersey, native is also embracing a leadership role that Gattuso has been eager for Undercuffler to undertake.

“Me and Braeden being veterans in the quarterback room, I feel like it’s our job to be another coach for the other quarterbacks, the other new guys that are all coming into our offense,” Undercuffler said. “Our offense is tricky. There’s a lot of stuff you’ve got to know.”

Running back Karl Mofor has seen Undercuffler’s evolution since 2018, when the quarterback was “forced into the fire” to make three starts as a true freshman.

Undercuffler’s quick rise to CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year and runner-up for the STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award in 2019 might have skewed Undercuffler’s perception of how he needed to approach a leadership role in his younger days, Mofor said, but now he’s fully adapted to the position of constantly being under a microscope.

“He’s really starting to understand that he has to be that guy every play,” Mofor said. “He can’t take the plays off, and every time we work out and in all the little things we do, somebody’s looking at him. I feel like he’s really grasped the concept of trying to do the right thing every time we’re on the field and off the field.”

While he’s taking more leadership responsibility on his shoulders, Undercuffler also said he’s committed to playing within himself this fall — something Gattuso has long asked his quarterback to do.

“We’ve got to be ordinary,” Undercuffler said. “Trust the guy to your left and your right that they’re going to be ordinary. No one’s going to be extraordinary. As long as you’re doing that, as a team, you’ll become extraordinary, and that’s when you become great.”

That evolving maturity, Gattuso said, matched with Undercuffler’s prodigious talent is why the quarterback still hasn’t scratched the surface of what he’s fully capable of on the gridiron.

“I’d like to see what his ceiling is,” Gattuso said. “I don’t think he’s reached it. I think he has a lot more developing to do and maturing to do. He still has three years of eligibility left, which people forget. He’s not young, but he’s not a grizzled veteran. I think this year’s going to be a fun year to watch his development.”

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