In his blood

The Buffalo News - - NFL -

Dole­gala, 22, grew up in Ham­burg with two broth­ers – Jar­rett, 24, and Jadd, 18. Foot­ball ran in the fam­ily. Their grand­fa­ther, Al Bemiller, was an All-Amer­i­can on Syra­cuse Univer­sity’s 1959 na­tional cham­pi­onship team. He was cho­sen by the Buf­falo Bills in the sev­enth round of the AFL Col­lege Draft in 1961 and went on to play nine years with the team, win­ning back-to­back AFL cham­pi­onships in 1964 and ’65. A cen­ter and guard, he also was named to the AFL All-Star team in 1965 and is a mem­ber of the Greater Buf­falo Sports Hall of Fame.

“Back then, not hav­ing the head gear that we have now, you can tell that it’s start­ing to im­pact him,” Dole­gala said of his grand­fa­ther, who is 80. “He’s like ‘Jake, you’re done with school, right? What are you do­ing now?’ I tell him, ‘I’m go­ing to fol­low in your foot­steps and play in the NFL.’ He says, ‘Oh re­ally? Well, you’ve got the size for it.’

“If I could do half of what he did, I’d be proud of my­self.”

Bemiller coached wrestling at St. Fran­cis in the 1980s, start­ing what would be­come a last­ing re­la­tion­ship with the school. All three Dole­gala boys went through Athol Springs, play­ing foot­ball for coach Jerry Smith and his long­time (since re­tired) as­sis­tant, John Sci­betta.

“At first, my dad wasn’t too keen on us go­ing there,” Jake said, point­ing out the tuition costs. “But as a school, there’s noth­ing like it. It’s what I needed. My par­ents both worked two jobs. It’s crazy what they’ve been will­ing to do for their kids. I hope to one day be able to re­turn the fa­vor, but they’re not ex­pect­ing that at all. They just want to see us be the best we can be.”

Jake played fresh­man ball and then spent his sopho­more year on the ju­nior var­sity. When he got to the var­sity as a ju­nior, he was stuck on the depth chart be­hind one of his child­hood best friends, Brian Melisz, who was a year ahead of him. Melisz had led the Red Raiders to a Mon­signor Martin cham­pi­onship in 2011, so he re­turned as the starter in 2012, mean­ing Dole­gala split time as a ju­nior.

“I ba­si­cally fol­lowed in his foot­steps,” Dole­gala said of play­ing be­hind his friend. “It was cool, be­cause there were a bunch of us Ham­burg guys who went to Fran­nies to­gether.

“We were close grow­ing up, play­ing pee wee and ev­ery­thing like that, but with Brian be­ing just a year ahead of me, it would have been nice if there was more of a gap.”

Still, Dole­gala was at least on the re­cruit­ing radar, thanks to com­pet­ing in camps in the sum­mer be­fore the 2013 sea­son.

“Se­nior year, that was sup­posed to be my year,” Dole­gala said. “Coach Sci­betta and coach Smith, they de­vel­oped a spread of­fense around me as the fo­cal point.”

That is, un­til the third drive of the Red Raiders’ third game of the sea­son. Play­ing on the road at Penn­syl­va­nia pow­er­house Cathe­dral Prep, Dole­gala threw an in­ter­cep­tion. As he at­tempted to make a tackle, he landed wrong on his throw­ing shoul­der. Trainer Nate Suchyna ex­am­ined Dole­gala on the side­line, and could tell the in­jury was se­ri­ous. A sub­se­quent MRI con­firmed a par­tially torn labrum, mean­ing his sea­son was over.

“It was aw­ful,” Dole­gala said. “I had waited that long for my shot, and for it to be taken away from me was re­ally hard. I felt like I had a bunch of po­ten­tial schol­ar­ships, but all these coaches were like, ‘Jake, we need you to get through three or four games and send us the tape.’ They just didn’t see enough film on me. I went from be­ing a po­ten­tial D-I schol­ar­ship kid to hav­ing D-III schools over­look me.”

There was a very real chance Dole­gala’s foot­ball ca­reer was over be­fore it ever re­ally started.

“His prospects were very low,” Sci­betta said. “Ob­vi­ously, he was dev­as­tated. He comes from a big foot­ball fam­ily, and he was ask­ing him­self, ‘What am I go­ing to do now?’ He still wanted to play.”

“It would have been easy to just hang ‘em up, quite hon­estly,” Ku­biak said. “That’s not some­thing that ever en­tered his mind. Even at his dark­est mo­ment, when he thought, ‘I’m not go­ing to be able to throw a foot­ball again’ -- he wanted to be­lieve that there was an op­por­tu­nity. Not ev­ery­one has that. Not ev­ery­one is will­ing to do what­ever it takes. He is. I think that’s a real sep­a­ra­tor for him.” Academy in New Ber­lin – the same school Bills star run­ning back LeSean McCoy at­tended. Sci­betta and Ku­biak had a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship with Mil­ford coach Bill Chap­lick, and they sold him on giv­ing Dole­gala a chance.

Of course, that came at a price. Tuition at Mil­ford is nearly $20,000 a year. Be­fore Dole­gala even got there, he got a par­tial schol­ar­ship of­fer from Cen­tral Con­necti­cut State, but he didn’t take it. Even though he was buried on the quar­ter­back depth chart, Dole­gala had made a com­mit­ment to Chap­lick, and he isn’t the type to back out of some­thing.

Dole­gala took over in Mil­ford’s first game of the sea­son, went 23 of 45 for 363 yards and three touch­downs and never looked back. Schools such as Iowa, Tem­ple and Rut­gers ex­pressed an in­ter­est, but didn’t trust his sur­gi­cally re­paired shoul­der.

At the end of the 2014 sea­son, the of­fer from Cen­tral Con­necti­cut stood as Dole­gala’s only one, mak­ing it an easy choice. Mil­ford was “a lot of money when I could have just gone (to Cen­tral) be­fore­hand, but I needed that year back. It was ba­si­cally my se­nior year.”

Ryan McCarthy, the Blue Devils’ of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at the time (and cur­rent in­terim head coach), had pre­vi­ously met Dole­gala when he was an as­sis­tant at the Univer­sity of Al­bany at a one-day prospect camp.

“I just re­mem­ber ob­serv­ing him and say­ing, ‘This kid has got le­git­i­mate, le­git­i­mate arm strength,” McCarthy said. “Ob­vi­ously, he had the phys­i­cal mea­sur­ables, it was just a mat­ter of hav­ing not re­ally seen it on film.

“When you see a kid who is 6-foot-6 that sticks out, but then when you see a kid who’s 6-foot-6 who could throw the foot­ball like he could, I mean, his arm was live. … That’s what stuck out to me that day.”

McCarthy even­tu­ally left Al­bany to take a job at Cen­tral Con­necti­cut. When the Blue Devils’ coach at the time, Pete Ros­so­mando, was in need of an­other quar­ter­back, McCarthy sold him on Dole­gala.

“I said, ‘If you’re go­ing to take a shot on a kid, this is a pretty good one to take a shot on.’ He had been at a prep school, so he had more film,” McCarthy said. “You could see he got big­ger and stronger.”

As he did at Mil­ford, Dole­gala didn’t need long to find his way into the lineup. Af­ter split­ting time as a true fresh­man, he took over as the starter as a sopho­more in 2016. Dole­gala went on to be­come the school’s ca­reer lead­ing passer, ap­pear­ing in 44 games and com­plet­ing 654 of 1,136 passes (57.6 com­ple­tion per­cent­age) for 8,129 yards, 48 touch­downs and 29 in­ter­cep­tions. He led the North­east Con­fer­ence in pass­ing as a sopho­more, and fin­ished his ca­reer as one of only five play­ers in league his­tory to throw for more than 8,000 yards.

“He’s still 6-6, but now he’s 240 pounds,” McCarthy said. “Devel­op­ment is a key com­po­nent of what we do as coaches, and I can say this: He was a pretty easy guy to de­velop, be­cause he had the right mind­set and a great work ethic.”

Dole­gala is never go­ing to be con­fused with Michael Vick as a run­ner, but McCarthy said he moves bet­ter for his size than he gets credit for.

“We didn’t just drop him back in the pocket and let him throw it. He ran zone-read con­cepts, he ran op­tion,” the coach said. “He be­came a vi­able Jake Dole­gala is the ca­reer lead­ing passer at Cen­tral Con­necti­cut State with 8,129 yards. He also threw for 48 touch­downs in 44 games.

ball car­rier for us. You wouldn’t say he’s fast, but it’s amaz­ing when we look back and see how many ex­plo­sive runs he had — I’m talk­ing runs over 12 yards — and he counted for a lot of those runs. The pro­gres­sion he made from ju­nior year to se­nior year was very, very large.”

Dole­gala led the Blue Devils to a con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship as a ju­nior in 2017, with his defin­ing game com­ing at Duquesne. He pro­duced all four touch­downs in a 28-27 win, qual­i­fy­ing Cen­tral Con­necti­cut for the FCS play­offs for the first time in school his­tory. He went 21 of 33 for 276 yards and two touch­downs, in­clud­ing the go-ahead score with 2:17 re­main­ing. He also ran nine times for 23 yards and two more touch­downs.

“As soon as we won, our whole team charged the field. Our par­ents jumped on the field, too,” Dole­gala said. “Ev­ery­body was cry­ing tears of joy. That was one of the coolest ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve ever had. My grand­fa­ther up in the stands with my mom and my dad. It was like a dream come true.”

Just a cou­ple of weeks later, how­ever, Dole­gala ex­pe­ri­enced the low point of his col­lege ca­reer. Af­ter a vic­tory against Robert Mor­ris in the reg­u­larsea­son fi­nale capped a 6-0 sea­son in con­fer­ence play, Dole­gala had a party at his apart­ment. His room­mate, who wasn’t on the foot­ball team, was in­tox­i­cated and started a fight. All four res­i­dents of the apart­ment ended up be­ing is­sued mis­de­meanor sum­mons for breach of peace. Ros­somondo sus­pended Dole­gala and re­serve of­fen­sive line­man Dave Cinti, who also lived in the apart­ment, for the team’s play­off game against New Hampshire. Cen­tral Con­necti­cut would lose, 14-0.

“It was dev­as­tat­ing, be­cause I know if I played, we could have gone

on a run in the play­offs,” Dole­gala said. “If I could go back in time, I’d do it over again. I learned from it.”

The sus­pen­sion be­came one of the first ques­tions scouts had for Dole­gala this past sea­son. McCarthy said the Blue Devils av­er­aged two to three scouts every week at prac­tice, and be­lieves every NFL team came through at least once.

“It’s like re­cruit­ing. Once you find out about a guy and he’s got those phys­i­cal mea­sur­ables, they came run­ning,” McCarthy said. “Scouts came and watched a lot of tape on him. He be­came a guy a lot of peo­ple were talk­ing about. When you come see him live, the first thing that sounds out is his size, but then when you see how the ball comes out of his hands, it’s just dif­fer­ent.”

The pres­ence of NFL eyes on him raised Dole­gala’s in­ten­sity level as a se­nior.

“It added that lit­tle bit of pres­sure, which was great. You’ve got to be on your (ex­ple­tive), par­don my French, with every throw,” he said. “You’ve got to show that you’re a leader out there. You’ve got to have that ca­ma­raderie with the guys. I think I did a good job of prov­ing that to those scouts, be­cause they’re still in­ter­ested.”

Tak­ing the next step

Dole­gala grad­u­ated in De­cem­ber with a de­gree in bi­ol­ogy. Since then, he’s been back home in Ham­burg, work­ing out at Sahlen’s Sports Park in Elma un­der the di­rec­tion of trainer Ben Woods, Ku­biak and Sci­betta.

Dole­gala’s Buf­falo-based agent and fel­low St. Fran­cis grad­u­ate, Matt Glose, said his client has turned down in­vi­ta­tions to train at mas­sive academies in Florida or Cal­i­for­nia.

“Be­cause of guys like John Sci­betta and Jim Ku­biak,” Dole­gala said about why he’s de­cided to train here. “They’ve been my men­tors for­ever, ba­si­cally. I have all my faith in them. They got me to where I am to­day.”

Dole­gala is throw­ing three times a week with lo­cal prod­ucts Naa­man Roo­sevelt and Luke Tasker, both of whom are 1,000-yard re­ceivers in the Cana­dian Foot­ball League.

“He’s a guy who wants to stand up for what he be­lieves in. It’s easy to get pulled in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions,” Ku­biak said. “He felt very strongly that the tech­nique and foot­work that he was taught since he was younger helped him be­come more con­sis­tent — helped him to be on time with his throws. From that stand­point, whether you’re in Florida or New Jer­sey or Buf­falo, we’re all talk­ing the same lan­guage . ...

“At the end of the day, it’s the work that you put in – not where you’re work­ing out. Cer­tainly not it’s as sunny and warm, but the work that’s be­ing done is every bit as good as any­where in the coun­try.”

Last Wed­nes­day, Dole­gala got a chance to show how that work has paid off when he par­tic­i­pated in the Univer­sity at Buf­falo’s pro day, which was held in­side the Bills’ field­house. That meant he got to mea­sure him­self against UB’s Tyree Jack­son, who at­tended the NFL Scout­ing Com­bine and is ex­pected to be a midround draft pick.

The con­sen­sus among those who watched Dole­gala throw is he has a can­non for an arm. It takes more than just that to make it in the NFL, though, which Ku­biak can at­test to.

“The big­gest thing to re­ally talk about when you go into the Na­tional Foot­ball League from col­lege, in my opin­ion, is foot­work and the speed of the game,” said Ku­biak, who also writes about Bills’ quar­ter­backs for The News. “Jake’s worked very dili­gently at op­er­at­ing from the pocket, from un­der cen­ter. His foot­work is tre­men­dous. So much of the col­lege game is in shot­gun, then you get in the NFL and things change a lit­tle bit. You’re un­der cen­ter quite a bit. He’s done a fan­tas­tic job with that.”

Dole­gala will get an­other op­por­tu­nity to im­press scouts Fri­day at Cen­tral Con­necti­cut’s pro day.

“I want to use the plat­form I have now to prove ev­ery­body wrong,” he said. “Even now, some of these coaches or GMs and scouts think I’m a devel­op­ment guy. I don’t think so. I think I’m ready. … If you put me on the field with any other guy out there, I think I’ll be able to com­pete, and I just want to prove that to ev­ery­body.”

Dole­gala ad­mits there’s a good­sized chip on his sur­gi­cally re­paired shoul­der.

“Big time,” he said. “That’s made me who I am now. I know I can over­come just about any­thing. As long as you put your mind to it and you truly have the de­sire to be great in what­ever you’re do­ing, you can over­come any­thing. I think I’m a good ex­am­ple of that.”

Most rank­ings have Dole­gala as a likely pri­or­ity free agent af­ter the draft, or at best a late-round prospect. In other words, more doubters. “I’d love to get drafted. I think I should be drafted,” Dole­gala said. “I truly be­lieve that. I truly be­lieve that, as far as quar­ter­backs, I feel like I’m top three in this class. The scouts and GMs, they just haven’t seen me play enough talent to maybe put that high on the draft boards.”

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