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When Travis Belden has something to say, it's usually a good idea to pay attention.

It's not just because he's a 215-pound bone-crushing, helmet-smacking linebacker, who once said that he wouldn't mind breaking the opposing running back's legs in two.

It's because, quite frankly, he knows what he's talking about.

Belden, the heart and soul of the Penn football team, is one of the few returning starters on a team that most people -- reporters, fans and opponents alike -- have completely written off as a contender.

It's hard to blame the naysayers for their skepticism -- the Quakers graduated 16 starters, including running back Kris Ryan and quarterback Gavin Hoffman, two of the best players this program has ever seen.

But Belden refuses to mourn the loss of such great talent. In fact, he has a little secret about this upcoming season.

"Yeah, we lost a lot of good players, but they're gone, they're has-beens," Penn's defensive star said rather matter-of-factly during Monday's Penn Football Media Day.

"I think we have a lot more talent this year than we did last year. If some of the young guys on defense really mature like I'm expecting, I think we'll be better."

Bold words. Most people would scoff at the notion that the 2002 Quakers will actually be better than last year's squad, a team that was a mere touchdown away from an unblemished season and an Ivy ring, and who finished the season ranked in the Top 25 in both the SportsNetwork and USA Today/ESPN Division I-AA polls.

But there is, in fact, reason to believe that Belden's audacious forecast may come true.

Belden -- the only two-time recipient of Penn's George A. Munger Award, given to Penn's Most Valuable Player on defense -- predicted at the outset of the Quakers' 2001 campaign that the defense, not the star-studded offense, would carry the load.

He was right. After a 2000 season in which the Quakers gave up nearly 26 points per game and needed repeated late-game heroics from the offensive unit to win the Ivy title, the defense really bore down last year.

Penn gave up just 11.4 points per contest in 2001, and had the stingiest rush defense in Division I-AA. The Quakers' defense was so good last year, there was a two-game stretch where they held their opponents to negative rushing yardage.

The question now, of course, is what happens to the defense after losing a bunch of First-Team All-Ivy performers -- Ed and John Galan on the defensive line, and D.L. Bouldrick and Kunle Williams in the secondary.

Belden, however, is not at all fazed. (Big surprise).

"Secondary-wise, we're more talented. Linebacker-wise, we're more talented. Up-front-wise, we have the potential to be more talented," Belden said. "We lost the Galans, we lost [Steve] Moroney, but we have a lot of young guys that have the potential to dominate games, and I'm excited about it."

The defense should again be expected to carry the team, at least in the beginning of the season, because there are a lot more question marks on the offensive side.

Replacing a quarterback, running back, fullback, wide receiver and virtually an entire offensive line will not be an easy task, but the Quakers seem convinced that their new starters will be able to pick up right where the stars of the past left off.

"A lot of us like that we were rated fourth [in the preseason Ivy League poll]," said wide receiver Rob Milanese, a fifth-year senior. "A lot of teams have no clue what kind of talent we have. They see all the big names gone, but we really do have comparable talent stepping in. And I think they're going to be pissed off to see that Penn's going to be good again."

Belden agrees that being picked fourth was a bit of a slap in the face, but has done nothing to humble a very confident and hungry Quakers team.

"We've basically been written off by all the reporters, but I wouldn't have it any other way," the senior co-captain said. "We can let our hair down, smack some people around and hopefully surprise some people."

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