Growing up outside Buffalo, Jacob Dolegala had been to New Era Field plenty of times.
He attended a number of Buffalo Bills games with his family and got the opportunity to play on the field when he attended Saint Francis High School. But none of those could quite compare to when he walked out of the visitors’ locker room and onto the field before the Cincinnati Bengals were to play the Bills on Sept. 22.
Nestled in the stands of the stadium was a group of family members decked out in what might be the Dolegala clan’s new favorite pair of colors.
“I saw a whole row of No. 7 jerseys in black and orange,” Dolegala said. “That was my favorite [NFL] moment. It was so cool and a dream come true. To see that, it was pretty special.”
In the midst of preparing for his second year in the National Football League, Dolegala is looking to build off a whirlwind rookie season that saw the Central Connecticut State graduate go from being undrafted, to signing with the Bengals at the conclusion of the 2019 NFL Draft, to impressing in training camp, dazzling in the preseason and finally making Cincinnati’s final 53-man roster.
“It was everything you’d expect it to be and then some,” Dolegala said. “We didn’t win a lot of games this year, so that kind of sucked. There were good moments and bad moments. I just tried to be a sponge this year and learn as much as I could being around [quarterback] Andy [Dalton] because he’s been doing this for a long time.”
‘THIS IS THE KID FROM CENTRAL CONNECTICUT?’
A torn labrum in his throwing shoulder cost Dolegala all but three games his senior season of high school, leading him to a prep year at Milford Academy as the interest from college programs began to wane. Game film for a scholarship was needed. But despite Milford selecting Dolegala as the team’s 2014 offensive MVP, the quarterback only had one program offer him a scholarship - a partial one from CCSU. Other teams simply didn’t trust his shoulder.
“I got here in the spring of 2015 and it was his first semester and the ball wasn’t popping out of his hand like it is now,” said Blue Devils head coach Ryan McCarthy, who served as Dolegala’s offensive coordinator at CCSU. “I remember when he had come to our one-day [camp] at Albany when he was a senior. [The ball] looked different. It didn’t seem like it had the same velocity. But as time went on and he became bigger and stronger; he walked in at 200, 205 pounds and walked out at 240, 245.”
As it turns out, it all might have worked for the best.
The Blue Devils were struggling to win games, going 11-32 in the four seasons between their last winning campaign in 2010 to the time Dolegala arrived on campus. But CCSU still had a tough time picking up wins in the quarterback’s first two seasons. The team went 4-7 his freshman season and fell to 2-9 the following year before breaking through in 2017 to finish the regular season 8-3 and secure the program’s first trip to the FBS playoffs after winning the Northeast Conference championship.
It was then Dolegala began to appear on scouts’ radar, and a strong senior season, when he completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,221 yards and 16 touchdowns, while rushing for six more, helped solidify him as a potential NFL prospect. In the process, he broke a myriad of program passing records, including career passing yards (8,129) and passing touchdowns (48). He also rushed for 3,607 yards and 46 touchdowns.
“He was like a sponge,” McCarthy said. “You didn’t have to tell him anything twice. He never made the same mistake again. That and he had tremendous faith in his ability and he was just one of those guys who continued to get better and better.”
Scouts could see the size, arm strength and athleticism Dolgala possessed on film, but it wasn’t until his first pro day when he really began to turn heads. Having grown up in the Buffalo area, Dolegala was allowed to take part in the University of Buffalo’s pro day which featured another quarterback prospect in Tyree Jackson. With representatives from all 32 NFL teams present, it wasn’t long into his throwing session before Dolegala impressed.
Andrew Johnson, the Northeast area scout for the Bengals, was one of those representatives present for the workout.
“When Jake started to throw the ball, the whole indoor facility went silent,” Johnson said. “It was like, ‘this is the kid from Central Connecticut?’ The tape was good, but once I saw him at the pro day, it was like, ‘whoa.’ He went through NFL routes and drops and now he’s [going through the workout] in shorts and a t-shirt and the receivers are running against air, but it was impressive. I remember the ball hitting the receivers’ hands and it was like listening to a pitcher throwing a bullpen and hearing the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt.”
Over the next month leading up to the draft, Dolegala became one of the more intriguing players coming from a small FCS school while measuring at 6-foot-6½, 240-pounds with 11-inch hands.
He made five pre-draft visits, to the Bengals, Bills, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and New York Jets.
“They want to see if you know your [stuff],” Dolegala said.
The only question remained if he would be selected or not. Some analysts saw him as a potential Day 3 selection (Rounds 5-7), and if he wasn’t drafted, it wouldn’t take long for a team to sign him as a priority free agent.
DRAFT DAY DISAPPOINTMENT
Draft day can be a stressful one for players, even for someone often described as calm, cool and collected like Dolegala often is.
Gathered with his family in a restaurant outside of Buffalo for Day 3 of the draft, Dolegala sat by his phone and waited. There was periodic check-ins from teams – Dolegala received three calls from the time the 7th round started to 6:37 p.m., when the final pick had been announced – but nothing ever materialized and the call the Dolegala clan was hoping for never came.
“I think going to a small school hurt my draft stock,” Dolegala said. “I did everything I was supposed to do. It wasn’t a question about my talent. But I wouldn’t have traded my time at Central for anything.”
It was still disappointing. A total of 11 quarterbacks ended up drafted, including six on Day 3. NC State’s Ryan Finley (Bengals, 4th round, 104th overall), Auburn’s Jared Stidham (New England Patriots, 4th Round, 133rd overall), North Dakota State’s Easton Stick (Los Angeles Chargers, 5th Round, 166th overall), Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson (Philadelphia Eagles, 5th Round, 167th overall), Washington State’s Gardner Minshew (Jacksonville Jaguars, 6th Round, 178th overall) and Penn State’s Trace McSorley (Baltimore Ravens, 6th Round, 197th overall) all heard their names called on TV.
Then, shortly after the final pick was made, Dolegala’s phone started and kept ringing. The Bengals, Bills, Browns, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins showed an interested in the quarterback.
In the end, Dolegala chose to sign with Cincinnati, despite the Bengals already drafting a quarterback. The Bengals had Dalton and backup Jeff Driskel on the roster and added Finley in the draft.
“He was obviously very talented, was very impressive throwing the ball, size, all of those things were kind of what you were looking for,” said Bengals offensive assistant Brad Kragthorpe, who spent a majority of his time last season working with the quarterbacks. “Obviously, he played in a smaller division of football, but there were a lot of intriguing aspects of his skill set that made you want to take a chance on him.”
(STILL) WAITING HIS TURN
And as he had done at both of his pro days, it didn’t take long for Dolegala to impress the Bengals staff and players, especially with his arm, as he wow’d onlookers during rookie minicamp through training camp and the preseason.
Of course, there were times when Dolegala was equally in awe. His welcome to the NFL moment: throwing to All-Pro receiver A.J. Green during OTAs.
“It was incredible,” Dolegala said. “He’s an amazing player; an amazing athlete.”
Yet it was the third and fourth preseason games, after not playing in the first two, where Dolegala made his strongest case for Cincinnati to keep him.
The CCSU product completed 37-of-53 passes for 347 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Giants and Colts. He played the entirety of the fourth game, completing 27 of his 41 throws for 253 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, and showed off his accuracy, touch on deep throws and his ability to extend plays when forced out of the pocket. Dolegala’s 100.1 passer rating was tops among the four quarterbacks on the roster.
“He lit it up,” Johnson said. “He was awesome. We were worried that if we tried to put him on the practice squad, someone would try to claim him. We were worried Jake wasn’t going to make it through waivers and another team would claim him.”
Sure enough, Dolegala made the final roster.
“When he made our team in September, I probably had two or three area scouts call me and were like, ‘man. We were hoping you’d cut Jake,’” Johnson said.
Dolegala received the good news from then-quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who is now a member of the Browns’ coaching staff, and FaceTimed his parents on their way to see younger brother Jadd’s game as CCSU prepared to face Fordham.
After Dalton failed to lead the Bengals to any wins in the first eight weeks of the season and score more than 20 points in all but one game up to that point, Taylor decided to bench the nine-year veteran in favor of Finley. But the rookie went 0-3 himself as a starter and didn’t impress much, completing 47.1 percent of his passes for 474 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Finley was then benched and there was talk of Cincinnati giving Dolegala some starts to see how he would fare. But Taylor opted to insert Dalton back into the starting lineup, winning his next start against the Jets and then the season finale against the Browns.
“I only dressed for a couple of games this season,” Dolegala said. “But that’s OK. Obviously, the guys in front of me [on the depth chart] were good. The coaching staff wanted to see them.”
BENGALS ARE ON THE CLOCK
Dolegala is once again back in the Buffalo area. He’s already back training, working on ways to improve and make sure he’ll be able to make the Bengals’ roster next season.
From what he showed with the limited amount of reps he got during his rookie campaign, his coaches believe there is still plenty of untapped potential left.
“He’s made great strides,” Kragthorpe said. “Probably more than anything has been the mental aspect of the game. At this level, compared to where he came from, we ask the quarterbacks to do a lot more and we put a lot on their plates in terms of protections, play adjustments and all those types of things and he’s grown tremendously and he’ll continue to grow. He’ll be the first to tell you he still has a long way to go, but there’s absolutely been growth.”
Dolegala impressed in other ways as well.
“He was awesome,” Kragthorpe said. “He brings a lot of energy. He’s funny. He’s great in the [quarterback] room. I got a lot of chances to work with him one-on-one and he’s very enthusiastic to get better and he has a lot of internal drive and motivation to get better with every opportunity he gets. He was a lot of fun to work with this past season.”
But can he be a starter in the NFL?
That is Dolegala’s ultimate goal and those around him don’t see why that wouldn’t be possible, it’s just about whether he gets the chance to prove it.
“I was fortunate enough at the University of Albany when the Giants were doing their training camp to see some of those guys operate and he looks just like they do in every aspect,” McCarthy said. “He’s got the arm strength and he’s more athletic than people give him credit for. I was watching Eli Manning, Jessie Palmer, David Carr and it’s an amazing thing to have had a kid like that in your program. I think he’s got the physical aspects and the mindset to be a starter in the league.”
Almost two months from now, the NFL Draft will get underway in Las Vegas with commissioner Roger Goodwell announcing the first overall pick – Cincinnati’s selection. The consensus is LSU quarterback Joe Burrow will be the choice as the team is likely to move on from Dalton.
Burrow is coming off one of, if not the, greatest college football seasons of all time this past season. He threw for 60 touchdowns and six interceptions as he won the Heisman Trophy and a national title.
But Dolegala isn’t worrying about that just yet. He’s been in tough positions before.
“It’s a business first. I understand that,” Dolegala said. “I can control what I can control and that’s working on my mental and physical game and trying to get better.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or email@example.com