- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Eight months ago, redshirt sophomore Patrick Witt stood on the precipice of competing for the starting quarterback job at Nebraska. Last Saturday, he completed 22 of 27 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns. Except that his white jersey had blue numbers, not red. And he played before 2,941 fans, about 78,000 fewer than the capacity of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
Witt is starting not at Nebraska but at Yale. While his former Huskers teammates played at Virginia Tech, Witt played a couple of hours away, leading the Bulldogs to a 31-10 victory at Georgetown. The reason that Witt left can be symbolized by a couple of events that happened last Friday.
On one page of the Yale Herald, a campus weekly, two sportswriters debated whether Witt or junior Brook Hart should start the opener. On another, a column excoriating President Obama for wasteful spending appeared with the byline "Patrick Witt, JE '12."
And while most of his teammates spent the seven-hour bus ride to Washington, D.C., watching movies, Witt buried himself in a copy of "Moby-Dick." When he talks about Yale, Witt sounds like that rarest of NCAA football players, the student-athlete, in that order.
"I love it here," Witt said. "It's everything I hoped it would be. I'm just glad to finally be enjoying it."
Witt isn't the only FBS quarterback to parachute into the Ivy League. At Harvard, Andrew Hatch is proving it's possible to start at quarterback for the defending national champion one season and run the Crimson scout team the next.
"It's kind of unique, isn't it?" said Hatch, about 1,600 miles and one NCAA subdivision away from LSU, where he started three games last season.
Witt began to question his future at Nebraska in the summer of 2008, when he needed arthroscopic surgery to repair his right meniscus. He was laid up for four weeks, long enough that he got an unwelcome peek at his athletic mortality.
"The first time I had to have surgery, with something not working properly, it shocks you," Witt said. "I was no longer invincible."
The injury made him consider his future outside of football. Witt arrived at Nebraska in 2007 with 15 AP credits. He found a locker room, he said, where he heard the refrain "C's get degrees." He saw Nebraska players who graduated in 2008 struggle to find the kind of job that might appeal to him. He knew his brother Jeff, a quarterback whose Harvard career ended in 2006 with a shoulder injury, would graduate in the spring and head to a job in the financial sector in New York.
"I finally just decided, if I'm going into spring practice, I'm going to be here this fall and I'm going to graduate from Nebraska," Witt said.
That's not what he wanted. What Witt wanted is the vibrant academic atmosphere he has found at Yale in classes such as "Political Philosophy of Abraham Lincoln" and "Comparative Welfare Policy in Developing Countries." He wanted a locker room where the level of humor rose above towel-snapping. Girls are a topic of conversation, but so is health care.
"People would look at me as if I had three heads if I brought that up in the locker room out there," Witt said of the latter. "And it's not like we're discussing these things all the time in the Yale locker room. You can be talking about football one minute and launch into a debate about politics the next."
Witt maintained that the Georgetown game Saturday came at him just as fast as what he experienced in Lincoln, where the 6-4, 220-pound graduate of Wylie (Texas) High threw eight passes last season in a backup role to Joe Ganz.
"Here and there, there's a guy that's two-tenths slower on his 40 than a guy playing for Texas," Witt said. "In general, football is still football. I don't think it changes that much."
He has the bruises to defend his argument. There's one on the bridge of his nose. Another, on the right side of his torso, "kind of looks like a galaxy through a telescope," Witt said. "It's all blue and red."
That's what happens when five new offensive linemen start in front of a quarterback making his first start. As accurate as Witt threw the ball, he fumbled four of the six times the Hoyas sacked him. Yale failed to recover two of the fumbles. Georgetown returned one 38 yards for its only touchdown.
"If he's who I think he is," head coach Tom Williams said of Witt, "we're going to have a chance to win a bunch of games [with him] at quarterback."
Hatch, like Witt, transferred in order to put his education first. And like Witt, Hatch began to look anew at his career because of an injury. Their paths to the Ivy League diverge from there.
Hatch's journey to Harvard completes a round trip. He redshirted there as a freshman in 2006, then left to serve an LDS mission in Chile. When Hatch returned in 2008, he transferred to LSU. He began last season as the Tigers' starting quarterback. He ended it after being Wally Pipped by two different freshmen. A concussion in the third game of the year kept him out long enough for Jarrett Lee to win the job. In the seventh game, against Georgia, Hatch suffered a broken fibula that ended his season.
LSU freshman Jordan Jefferson came on and played well enough that he looked like the future of the Tigers' offense. When Jefferson led LSU to a 38-3 rout of Georgia Tech in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve, Hatch had about 11 days before the start of the spring semester to decide whether he would come back to LSU.
Hatch said that the LSU coaches promised him that the job would be wide-open in the spring. But he didn't know whether his leg would heal by spring practice. And Jefferson had looked so good at the end of the season.
"I definitely still wanted to play football," Hatch said. "I knew there was great football here. That's why I came here out of high school. That, combined with the rare academic opportunity. I thought maybe this happened for a reason. It just kind of redirected my path."
Harvard coach Tim Murphy had stayed in touch with Hatch during his two seasons in Baton Rouge. He wrote Hatch's parents a congratulatory note after Hatch started LSU's opener last season against Appalachian State. Still, when Hatch called him in January, "it was a surprise, no question," Murphy said. "He told me: 'It's become obvious to me whether I make it in the NFL or not, education is the most important thing. When you're away from it, you understand what it means.'
"I told him: 'You're going to be at the bottom of the depth chart. We still have good players,'" Murphy said.
Most student-athletes who transfer from an FBS school to an FCS school don't lose a year of eligibility. But the NCAA regarded Hatch as a second-time transfer and ruled that he must sit a season.
"It's different, obviously," Hatch said. "I wish I was playing. I love football. I love practicing football. It's not as fun as games. I love competing against our defense. It helps make me better. ... I do whatever I can to make plays against our best defense. I'm a competitor. I love to compete. I can't do it on Saturdays."
Hatch spent two seasons at LSU and has a national championship ring for his effort. Asked to assess the difference in LSU and Harvard, he said, "One thing is, you can't make any blanket statements." He allowed for LSU's speed, and the size and quickness of its defensive front. "The front seven on defense, there's maybe a little less size up here," Hatch said. "... But some guys could go compete and play there. I don't really know how many."
Witt maintains contact with his former Huskers teammates. He has spoken with his freshman roommate, linebacker Blake Lawrence, the last two Saturdays.
"I think they're going to have a lot of success this year," Witt said. "I knew that after last season. We always kind of pointed to this year as an important year. I like what the coaches are doing out there. I thought they had the program in the right direction. Again, for me it wasn't the right direction."
Witt's wait is over. He is playing -- and studying and debating and practicing and reading -- and loving it.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.
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