For the past two years, Brook Hart ’11 has entered preseason camp with the goal of being Yale’s starting quarterback. Both times he has failed — at first.
Last season, an injury to starter Ryan Fodor ’09 halfway through the season propelled Hart to the starting spot. This season, it was a combination of his own impressive play in limited time, a struggling and injured rival, and an off-field incident that has again landed him into the lead position on the gridiron.
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After starting as quarterback in the first two games of this season — going 43-for-81 with two touchdowns and three interceptions — Patrick Witt ’12 was pulled midway through the fourth quarter in the team’s third game against Lafayette. With Yale losing 24-7 at the time, Hart took over and led two long drives, completing 13 of 17 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. It may not have been enough to win the game, but it underscored the southpaw’s talent and potential.
Witt, who found out later in the week that Hart was going to start against Dartmouth, admitted in a column in The News on Oct. 9 that he had suffered a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in preseason, as well as a concussion during the match against Cornell. Wittt didn’t blame the injuries for his play. He did say, however, that the torn labrum affected the velocity of his throws because the pain didn’t allow him to use his left arm to rotate.
“I wouldn’t say that [my play] was too terribly hindered by my injury,” Witt said in an interview. “We kind of modified the game plan; we didn’t necessarily take as many shots downfield as we would have liked to because I wasn’t able to get a lot on the ball because of the shoulder injury and I wasn’t able to run the ball as much as maybe I would have liked to.”
Head coach Tom Williams added, “He hasn’t been 100 percent since early preseason, but no football player ever is. It didn’t affect him and I don’t think it affected him in the Cornell or Lafayette losses.”
Nevertheless, the original plan, according to Williams, was to have Witt see some playing time under center against the Big Green until a decision was made last-minute to bench Witt for the entire game due to a “violation of team rules.”
That violation, Witt said, was accidently sleeping through the team’s weekly Friday night meeting while studying for a midterm.
“I was doing some reading and I fell asleep on the couch, so I missed the meeting; and if that’s a violation of team rules then that’s pretty absurd,” Witt said. “I understand that we are all required to be at meetings, but it was a simple accident and it’s unfortunate that it happened, but don’t try to make it out to be that I was using illegal substances or something ridiculous like that. It was something that all Yale students can understand.”
And with this opportunity, a more confident Hart has taken the reins.
Last season, Hart felt out of place. He was younger and less experienced than most of the team’s regular contributors, having played on the JV team the year before. Yet still he was vying for the starting quarterback job during preseason, along with Fodor.
After Fodor graduated in May, this season was supposed to be different. Although Hart expected to compete with a couple teammates for the starting spot, he was the obvious next in line as the full-time quarterback — until, as spring practice wound down, he heard some news that could change that.
Witt, a high-profile high school recruit and then a backup at Big XII powerhouse Nebraska, announced his decision to transfer to Yale. A few months earlier, head coach Jack Siedlecki stepped down and Williams came on board, bring with him a philosophy of open competition: no player had a guaranteed spot.
“Coach said that there would be competition still and whoever got the starting job was going to have to earn it,” Hart said. “I wouldn’t say it was a disappointment. It was good because I knew that I would have to push myself, knowing that somebody else was going to come in and try to take my spot and take reps away from me.”
When Hart and Witt entered preseason camp, Hart had the advantage of age and familiarity with the team but Witt was the hyped transfer from a BCS school. The competition was intense, lasting until the final week prior to the team’s opener at Georgetown, when it was announced that Witt was named the starter. That decision came despite Witt injuring his shoulder towards the end of camp.
They may be similar on the field, but off the field, teammates say that isn’t the case.
“Brook is in my fraternity with me and likes to have a good time,” H-back John Sheffield ’10 said. “Pat does too, but Pat is much more likely to be found doing a crossword or reading than Brook will. But they’re both great guys to hang around with on and off the field..”
Starting against Dartmouth, Hart picked up right where he left off, throwing for 390 yards — the sixth-highest total in Yale history — to go with three touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
Hart’s teammates noticed not only his monster stats, but also the way he has mentally taken charge compared to last season.
“I think he’s more comfortable [this year],” Sheffield said. “He’s comfortable being the leader, being the guy who is stepping up and telling people what to do, not worrying about putting himself out there or anything else.
At Lehigh on Saturday Hart will once again be the starter, although Williams also added that Witt may get playing time if he performs well in practice this week.
Witt isn’t flustered over the decision and said that he simply cares more about how the team does than how much playing time he gets.
“‘[In terms of future playing time] I have no idea and I really don’t care,” Witt said. “Brook had a great game. I knew from competing with him this fall that he was an outstanding player and I had no doubt that he was going to go out there and have a lot of success. I thought that he did a great job leading the offense and the ultimate goal is to win a football game, so I could really care less if I take another snap the entire season and we went out and won the Ivy League championship. That’s all I really care about.”
Regardless of who is playing, the Bulldogs say that the two are similar players and the offense is not changed very much by who is taking snaps.
“Right now I have confidence in both of those guys that they can go out and perform,” offensive coordinator Brian Stark said. “I think they’ve both shown that they can perform well enough for us to win football game.”