ALBANY — The three quarterbacks who have taken a step forward in what’s been a wide-open competition throughout training camp to determine who’ll be the starter for UAlbany this football season have all felt motivated by the push for the job.
That’s good, because it probably won’t be over for a while.
What started as a four-man race was whittled slightly down to three this past week, as graduate student Matt Valecce slipped behind the trio of Reese Poffenbarger, Tyler Szalkowski and Joey Carino, with Poffenbarger getting the majority of the snaps at practice with the first-team offense.
But Great Danes head coach Greg Gattuso said, not only is the competition ongoing, it might be for quite a while. All three quarterbacks in the hunt for the starting role are slated to see action in UAlbany’s Sept. 3 season opener at Baylor, and that might be the case through the team’s first four games before its Oct. 1 bye week.
“It’s going to continue on for a little while, until we feel really comfortable,” Gattuso said in a phone interview Friday. “If we get to the off week, and we feel good about somebody, then they’ll be the starter.”
The message to Carino, Poffenbarger and Szalkowski has been clear — this is far from over.
So far, they’re all just fine with that.
“We’re all helping each other,” Carino said following practice Wednesday. “We’re all just trying to compete. The more we compete, the better it’s going to make all of us.”
“I’m having my good days, having my bad days,” Szalkowski said. “I’m just trying to stay consistent. With the other guys in the [quarterback] room, we’re having a lot of fun just being out here playing football.”
Carino brings the most collegiate experience to the table, having appeared in all 11 games — including one start — for the Great Danes last season and completing 41 of 68 passes for 530 yards and three touchdowns.
Neither Szalkowski, a redshirt freshman who was stuck down the UAlbany depth chart last season, nor Poffenbarger, a sophomore who transferred to UAlbany from Old Dominion, have ever attempted a collegiate pass.
As UAlbany’s coaching staff evaluated the quartet through two weeks of practice, Poffenbarger’s graded out highest thus far.
“He had better grades and a higher pass percentage,” Gattuso said. “He makes all the throws.”
The Maryland Offensive Player of the Year in high school, Poffenbarger entered the NCAA transfer portal this past offseason while seeking an earlier opportunity to play than he’d get at Old Dominion, where incumbent starter Hayden Wolff has three years of eligibility remaining.
He was a late transfer to UAlbany, coming in after spring practice, but had a strong relationship with new Great Danes offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose, who recruited Poffenbarger when he was an assistant at Delaware.
Even as a late arrival, Poffenbarger’s meshed easily with the guys he’s been duking it out with to be UAlbany’s starter.
“The guys in the quarterback room are probably my best friends on the entire team,” he said. “There’s no ill will towards any of them.”
The four worked with each other — and with a deep UAlbany group of skill players — throughout the summer to get acclimated with Ambrose’s scheme, and while each wants the job, they’ve been patient so far.
The reps were divvied up evenly at the start, with all four getting equal work with both starters and backups, until Gattuso’s staff reached a point where they needed to establish some sort of hierarchy.
Poffenbarger’s seen quarterback competitions at Old Dominion, but nothing with a scene quite so crowded as what UAlbany has this summer.
“It’s been interesting. It’s been cool,” he said. “They’ve done it the perfect way and been able to evaluate everybody.”
It’s an evaluation that’s going to continue for a while, as Gattuso said he’s certain they won’t settle on a defined starter until the games have already begun.
Out of the gate, that means a Baylor team ranked in the top 10 in FCS preseason polls. It’s a real “out of the frying pan, into the fire” situation.
“I don’t put any preconceived thoughts on playing against a team like Baylor, other than getting them out and getting some heat on them, face the pressure and the contact and all that stuff,” Gattuso said. “We’ll get some reps, we’ll get them some work and see how they handle things.”
As for the quarterbacks themselves? They’re all content with making their case and letting things play out.
“At the end of the day, it’s just playing football,” Szalkowski said. “You’re having fun out here playing with the guys, and not making too much of a big deal out of it.”
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