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Football Penn Vs. Harvard. Harvard -- Harvard won! Penn 13 Keiffer Garton Harvard 50 Ajayi, Peter Credit: Toby Hicks

Last season, Penn football coach Al Bagnoli ended a five-year championship drought — the longest of his Penn career — with a rotating cast of often-injured quarterbacks.

This year, he enters the season with clear plans as to who will be under center for the Quakers.

Well, sort of.

Senior QB and captain Keiffer Garton returned from the offseason healthy and ready to lead the team after an injury-ridden junior year. However, he may not be the team’s passer in the season opener Sept. 18 against Lafayette.

“He’s been cleared to do everything,” said Bagnoli, “but it’s more me really trying to be selective of how much we use him early — how quickly we adjust him to game.”

Elbow and knee injuries sidelined Garton throughout the 2009 season, causing him to miss five games during Penn’s run to the Ivy title.

“Last year was rough,” Garton said. “It was great for the team, but I had some personal difficulties with injuries, and I’m excited and ready to go.”

Bagnoli used then-freshman Billy Ragone and senior Kyle Olson in Garton’s place.

Garton went down again during spring practice after tearing his ACL.

Despite the setbacks, Garton’s rehab went smoothly, and he was cleared to play ahead of schedule.

“I’m feeling really good — haven’t had any problems practicing out there,” he said Monday, a week into training camp.

But that isn’t keeping Bagnoli from being careful when it comes to putting his vetted leader in the huddle.

“We’ve gotta be really cautious with him,” said Bagnoli, who is steering the program towards an elite 800th win.

Bagnoli described fighting “mini-wars” with Garton regarding how much the senior can practice. For now, Garton has been limited to just one of the two daily practices.

“We’re going to gradually get him in, and my hope is by week two or three or four, he’s feeling really good about himself, he’s comfortable, he’s healthy. And I think that’s a win-win for us at that point.”

Until then, Bagnoli feels comfortable with the depth he has at the position. First on the list of the potential replacements is sophomore Billy Ragone.

While Ragone broke his collarbone in last year’s game against Dartmouth and missed the rest of the season, he racked up 62 yards rushing and a touchdown in the game — as well as Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors.

With game experience behind him, the sophomore is ready to take charge should his name be called.

“I think I’m confident right now,” he said. “I’m comfortable with the offense and ready to go game one, get a ‘W’.”

Also in the mix are sophomore Andrew Holland and freshman Ryan Becker — though neither has seen collegiate action to date.

But Bagnoli won’t reveal his plans for the season opener just yet.

“We’re still trying to decide. All those young kids have gotten a lot of reps.”

And for the long haul, Bagnoli says it is Garton’s leadership and experience that he wants on the turf this season as the Quakers look to upset preseason favorite Harvard for the title.

“Kids have a lot of confidence in him, and he carries himself very well. Kids rally around him,” Bagnoli said.

“It’s that understanding of getting us in and out of good plays, that presence in the huddle, that confidence factor, that leadership quality that I think is harder to replace.”

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