ALBANY — For the majority of his true freshman season, quarterback Jeff Undercuffler led the scout team’s offense during University at Albany football practices.
Out of nowhere, to some degree, Undercuffler became the Great Danes’ starting quarterback for the final three weeks of the 2018 season after injuries mounted at the position.
“Things definitely jumped from zero to 100 for me, for sure,” Undercuffler said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
This year, Undercuffler — now a redshirt freshman since he only played in four games last season — starts UAlbany’s season as its starting quarterback. When the Great Danes’ 2019 season begins at 7 p.m. Thursday at Central Michigan, an FBS program coming off a 1-11 season, Undercuffler will become the sixth opening-night starting quarterback for sixth-year head coach Greg Gattuso.
Only two of those first five season-opening starters for Gattuso were in their final year of eligibility. Besides Will Fiacchi in 2014 and Vincent Testaverde in 2018, the other three quarterback starters during Gattuso’s tenure — DJ Crook in 2015, Neven Sussman in 2016 and Will Brunson in 2017 — had potential to become multi-year starters.
Coming off a 3-8 campaign, UAlbany’s focus is on winning games right away — but a key question for the future of the program revolves around the staying power of its latest new quarterback.
To put it simply, can Undercuffler become a mainstay for the Great Danes?
As a true freshman, Undercuffler showed enough promise in a limited sample of games that he entered preseason camp this year as the likely starter. In four appearances, he was 42 of 85 passing for 526 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. In UAlbany’s season-ending win against Stony Brook that halted a six-game losing streak, Undercuffler was 10 of 20 passing for 170 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Gattuso said the Great Danes’ coaching staff has to view Undercuffler as a “freshman quarterback” in terms of how much it asks of him this season. Notably, Gattuso has said he wants UAlbany to run the ball more than it did a season ago when it passed the ball 51.1% of the time.
“He’s a freshman quarterback,” Gattuso said. “We have to coach him like he’s young.”
The best way, though, to gain experience is through playing. Balancing trying to win games with giving Undercuffler a chance to prove himself is one of the top challenges this season for second-year offensive coordinator Joe Davis.
“But what I have challenged Jeff with, as I have all the quarterbacks, is you can’t let one mistake turn into two, three or four,” said Davis, who is also UAlbany’s quarterbacks coach. “[Undercuffler] has an excellent mindset with that.”
When he led the scout offense last year, Undercuffler demonstrated a strong arm and mind in taking on the Great Danes’ starting defense. During those weeks, Undercuffler said his mindset was to “just go out there and sling the rock,” and credits the confidence with which he attacked UAlbany’s starting defense for why UAlbany’s coaches felt comfortable turning to him late last season when a new quarterback was needed.
“That’s ultimately how you move up the depth chart, and that’s how I started to move up,” Undercuffler said. “Once my time came, I tried to take full advantage of it.”
This year, Undercuffler would appear to have a fair amount of job security despite his relative inexperience. Redshirt junior Griffin Dahn would be the No. 2 quarterback, but broke his hand during training camp. Instead, redshirt freshman Braeden Zenelovic — who never played last season — is the No. 2 quarterback, while freshman Jah Dabney is pegged as the No. 3 quarterback. Dabney, though, is viewed more as a wildcat quarterback.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been, as a coach, in that situation,” Davis said of having three freshman quarterbacks atop UAlbany’s depth chart. “But, certainly, the focus is now, and right now we feel Jeff gives us the best opportunity to win right now.”
He wants to prove that take is the right one.
“I can’t wait, personally, but it’s never about one individual. It’s not just about me,” Undercuffler said. “I’m just trying to be the guy that tells our offense as a unit, and our whole team, to be ready to roll and get the win.”