Physically, there isn't much of a difference in the 1999 and 2000 versions of Penn quarterback Gavin Hoffman. His hair is brown this year instead of dyed-blond -- the long bangs replaced by a close-cropped style. But Hoffman still stands an imposing 6'5", 235 pounds. He still towers over most of his teammates. And he still has a cannon for a right arm. But if you could look under the helmet, hair, skin and bone, you'd see a vastly different Hoffman. The storm of thoughts and emotions in Hoffman's head is gone. There are still plenty of neurons firing under his skull, but the Penn signal-caller's head isn't spinning any more. Last year, Hoffman came in as a transfer from Northwestern only 10 days before preseason camp began. From the moment the Wayzata, Minn., native stepped foot in West Philadelphia, he was lost. His teammates were strangers, his friends hundreds of miles away. "The only contact [Hoffman] had was with the coaching staff prior to him getting here," Penn quarterbacks coach Larry Woods said. "That was a big adjustment for him, whether he admits it or not." He admits it. "I had to get acclimated to classes. I had to take care of credits, make new friends, get in a new living situation and then also worry about football in such a short period of time," Hoffman said. "The first month or two, it was a pretty stressful time trying to get acclimated to everything." That certainly explains part of Hoffman's early-season struggles. In his first four games at Penn, the Breck (Minn.) High School graduate completed just 70 of his 124 passes for 644 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions. But that all changed on October 16, 1999, when Penn visited Columbia. The Quakers thrashed the Lions, 41-17. And Hoffman's numbers read like the box score from a Tecmo Bowl video game: Twenty-five completions in 32 attempts. A school-record 399 yards passing. Four touchdowns. And no interceptions. Gavin Hoffman may have stepped foot on Penn's campus in August, but he truly arrived on the second Saturday in October. "I was finally comfortable with the receivers, finally comfortable with the offense and sort of knew what to expect on Saturdays," Hoffman said. Hoffman was no stranger to Saturday afternoons on the gridiron -- he threw for 2,199 yards in 12 games at Division I-A Northwestern in 1998 -- but he wasn't quite used to Division I-AA football. "I think that's a real big deal," Hoffman said. "The first few weeks, I didn't know how fast other teams were going to be, how big they were." By that Columbia game, though, he had gotten used to it. Here, in the not-so-bright lights of Division I-AA, linemen are lighter, receivers are slower and crowds are smaller. But the game between the sidelines is the same. "Once you're out there playing it and you get into the season, football is football and you're not really thinking about those differences any more," Hoffman said. But Hoffman still had plenty on his mind besides football last year. This year, Hoffman's not exactly Mr. Zen in the pocket, but his head is a lot clearer. "He doesn't have that many of those distractions," Woods said. "He can settle in and concentrate on school when it's time for school, and football when he's out here." And unlike last year, when he had to take a crash course in Chuck Priore's offense, Hoffman had just as much time as his teammates to learn new offense coordinator Andy Coen's plan. "He started at square one with everyone else this year and really took advantage of it," Woods said. "He knows the playbook probably as well as [the coaches] do." And being on equal footing helps the Wharton junior be a better leader of the team, as well. Just by virtue of the position he plays, Hoffman was a leader of some sort from the first day of camp last year. But the offense was led, in many ways, by center and co-captain Carmelo Rubano. "You can't just come into a situation and demand respect," senior wide receiver Jason Battung said. "You have to earn it." And through 10 games and a year's worth of practices, that's what Hoffman has done. "He's a person who succeeds, and you can tell he breeds that through the way he plays," Battung added. This year, Hoffman will take on more of a leadership role. Sure, wide receiver Doug O'Neill and running back Kris Ryan were named co-captains, but Hoffman still mans the driver's seat in the offense. And this is a more mature Hoffman behind the wheel in so many ways. Last year, Hoffman rooted against Northwestern. He wanted his former team to yearn for him, to lament their break-up. He wanted them to regret losing Gavin Hoffman. "I wanted [Northwestern] to miss me and say, OOh, if Gavin was here, we'd be doing a lot better,'" Hoffman said. "But now it's no good looking back and regretting things and wishing ill on people like that." Instead, Hoffman has struck up a new romance with Penn. There may not be that Division I-A beauty, but Hoffman's still charmed. "I'm a lot more happy as a person at Penn and I enjoy playing the game a lot more here," Hoffman said. "I think that's what college football is about. It's not about who's in the stadium. It's about your teammates and if you're having fun playing." And Hoffman may have a little more fun playing this year in Coen's new, more pass-oriented offense. It's not exactly the run-and-shoot attack of the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Oilers in the early '90s, but it's far from a Nebraska. "It's not necessarily going to have to be a chuckfest," Woods said. But Hoffman will be more Warren Moon than Eric Crouch this fall. "We throw the ball a lot more in this offense," O'Neill said. "Last year, whenever we got into the red zone, it seemed like we ran, and I think we'll throw it a little more this year. It's a lot more wide-open attack." This should pad Hoffman's already-cushy statistics. Last year, the Quakers' quarterback completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 2,328 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. But those numbers were a little down in some respects from Penn's quarterback production with Matt Rader in 1998. Rader, a transfer himself from Division I-A Duke in 1997, completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 2,026 yards, 15 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Rader and Hoffman. You can't help but compare two transfers from Division I-A programs thrust immediately upon arrival into starting roles. Invariably, fans would size up the two quarterbacks, but Hoffman didn't get caught up in the comparisons -- especially when he was being measured up to a man he never met. "I wasn't trying to compare myself with Matt, because he's a different person than me," Hoffman said. "I'm sure he was a great quarterback, and that's what I've heard. But I didn't every day think, OHow did Rader do at this point in the season?'" Neither did teammates and coaches, especially since they saw many of the same qualities Rader possessed in Hoffman. But there are certainly differences. Rader throws a little harder, but Hoffman has a little more touch. And Rader was an all-state linebacker in high school, while Hoffman's been almost exclusively a signal caller. "Gavin's just that prototypical quarterback, so he's a little bit more polished on the offensive side of things," Penn head coach Al Bagnoli said. "Matt had a little bit different background, so maybe he was a little physically stronger from his high school days and his upbringing as a linebacker." But Rader's been gone for two years now. Penn isn't The Team Formerly Quarterbacked By Matt Rader anymore. Hoffman is entrenched behind center, and time has made the comparisons between the two moot. The only worthwhile comparisons are between the 1999 and 2000 models of Hoffman -- comparisons that will undoubtedly be made all year long. Off the field, the differences are noticeable. The 1999 Hoffman, at least in September, sat in the corner with his hands folded in his lap. The 2000 Hoffman lounges on the couch with his feet crossed on the coffee table. On the field, the 1999 Hoffman, at least in September, was a little uncertain and scattershot. The 2000 Hoffman seems more confident and accurate -- although we won't know just how confident and accurate until the season opens on Saturday.Comments powered by Disqus
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