By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Sunday afternoon, Pat Sheahan begins to see if the stuff that caught his eye three years ago about a young quarterback from Mississauga was truly the portent of something special.
Nate Hobbs, the young man who intrigued the Queen’s Golden Gaels coach that day, will start to discover if a football game he watched on television almost six years ago was merely memorable, or the spark of his athletic destiny.
Hobbs will be the quarterback when the Gaels host the Carleton Ravens in their Ontario University Athletics season opener. He replaces Billy McPhee, who has graduated after five seasons with Queen’s.
In that time, Sheahan has watched a lot of young quarterbacks but he remembers the first time he laid eyes on Hobbs particularly well. It was a showcase event, billed as the rising stars of the GTA versus those from the Golden Horseshoe, and the coach recalled that not all of his coaching contemporaries were on the same page.
“Everybody was talking about the other quarterbacks that were in the game,” Sheahan said, “but we recognized Nate and I said, ‘I want to find our more about that guy.’
“He had great presence, which you’re always looking for in a quarterback. One of the things I always take a second look at is when the kid demonstrates a little bit of pop in his arm. That gets your attention and you want to see if he has the other attributes.
“He got whacked a couple of times and popped right up When you watch a quarterback get hit, and the next time he throws it a second early, you think, ‘OK, he’s been intimidated by the contact.’ He wasn’t like that.
“Then I heard he was a pretty good student, and we wanted to get a little bit more information on him.”
Sheahan discovered that Hobbs was the kid brother of Marcus Hobbs, a former University of Toronto quarterback, but he didn’t necessarily want to go to school where his brother had gone. Little did the Sheahans know that Nate Hobbs had been predisposed to coming to Queen’s for a long time, thanks to Danny Brannagan.
Brannagan was wrapping a five-year quarterbacking career of his own at Queen’s in the autumn of 2009, when he ultimately would lead the team to a Vanier Cup championship. Watching the Yates Cup game on TV that fall that piqued Hobbs’ curiosity about Queen’s.
What will be forever remembered as the Brannagan-Faulds Game was a titanic struggle between the Gaels, led by Brannagan, and Western, whose quarterback was Michael Faulds. In one of the classic Yates Cup games of all time, there were seven lead changes, the game was tied twice and the teams combined for more than 1,200 yards, with Brannagan throwing for 515 of them and five touchdowns.
“Seeing Danny Brannagan play in 2009, it definitely put Queen’s on my map nice and early,” Hobbs said after practice the other day. “That game caught a lot of attention so after that I watched the Vanier. It was exciting. Look back at those games: they were all very close games, definitely a lot of offensive firepower, and Danny had to do a lot to win those games.
“Through high school, I kind of figured if Queen’s ever came to talk to me, that was probably somewhere I wanted to go.”
Funny Hobbs should mention Brannagan. He’s often the first person that comes to mind when people see Hobbs on a football field for the first time.
“It’s surreal,” says Scott Valberg, the all-Canadian receiver who caught two of those Brannagan touchdown passes in that Yates Cup game, including one in the final three minutes that put the Gaels into the lead for good.
Valberg experienced Hobbs, first-hand, in the spring, when ex-Gaels Rob Bagg and Matt Webster rented the sports dome in Westbrook for some off-season training. To complete the workout, they invited some current and former Queen’s players to take part.
“Even just the way they have the same features, similar mannerisms, the same way that they walk,” Valberg said.
“I don’t want to pump his tires too much, but he throws the ball as hard as Danny did. It was just strange and kind of surreal when we were working out with him on Saturdays. You show up and this guy looked like Danny 2.0.”
It wasn’t just the physical characteristics that were reminiscent of his former teammate, Valberg said. Their approach to the game is remarkably similar, too. “They both have that quiet confidence. Nate’s not very outspoken … his approach to the game is pretty laid back. If we wanted to try something different, he’d be totally up for it. He’s a quiet guy and easy to like.
“There seems to be quite a bit of potential there for him to be successful.”
The first-hand observations were confirmed not long ago when Valberg visited practice.
“It’s hard to describe,” he said. “We were watching the other day and it was, ‘Yep, he walks the same way as Danny, his reactions are the same as Danny’s.’ He’s a pretty calm guy. There’s no super high excitement and there’s no super bummed out when he misses a throw.
“There’s tons of upside with him. It’s nice to see a guy who’s totally calm and willing to roll with the punches. Just having seen him at practice, he’s already got command of how things go. He throws the ball well and he’s throwing to the right spots.”
Sheahan concedes the comparison.
“He’s sort of Danny Brannagan-esque, but bigger,” he said of his 230-pound sophomore. “I would bring another name into the mix: Tom Denison. He’s kind of a combination of those guys. He’s big like Denison was and he’s got a strong arm.
“He’s not intimidated by anything and I’ll tell you what: we have tested him. He’s gobbling up the information.”
Hobbs, pursuing a double major in economics and geography, played sparingly behind McPhee a year ago, completing six of 18 pass attempts in bits of four games. In last week’s preseason match at Concordia, he completed nine of 14 for 137 yards in half a game, throwing for Queen’s only touchdown in a five-play, 76-yard second-quarter drive in which he was 3-for-3.
“It was good to get that first start out of the way,” Hobbs said. “Hopefully there are no more jitters this week. I feel comfortable, and it’s all about getting comfortable with all my guys, getting good chemistry going. After that first week of camp, getting reps with the first team most of the time definitely helps with that.
“I’m starting to feel better and better every day. We’re ready to go. The tempo of practice, the intensity of things—it’s really starting to pick up now. I think we’re eager to get at it.”
The performance at Concordia only cemented Sheahan’s vision of his young quarterback. “He conducted himself very well,” Sheahan said. “He does not look like a sophomore. He looks like a guy who’s been around for a little bit.
“He’s a physical guy; he’s not the type of guy who gets hit once and melts, and he’s got a strong arm. The one thing that was very much in evidence: he can make all the throws.
“One of the things in the offensive package that we’ve used here for the past 15 years is we need a guy who can make the throws. We have a 65-yard field and he can make every throw on the field. What he can add to the arsenal with his feet will command a little respect. Now if we see coverage packages where (the opponent) thinks, ‘We’ve got to defend the quarterback taking off,’ that just adds another weapon.”
Hobbs said he was aware of the situation when he chose to come to Queen’s.
“The whole recruiting thing with Queen’s is that, obviously it’s a great school,” he said, “but the way things played out in terms of timing, being able to have that year behind Bill to learn the offence and figure out what’s going on, and then being able to step in in my second year, it was definitely a big draw.
“It was something I wanted to do, to be able to play early in my career.”
And now he will. “He’s excited to be playing,” Sheahan said.
This is only the third time in the last 11 years that Queen’s has auditioned a new quarterback, and Hobbs understands the significance of that. “It definitely feels cool to be the next guy, trying to make sure I hang around for the next four years,” he said. “It feels great.
“You kind of look back at what your mindset was in high school and to finally be here and be in this moment, it’s definitely something that feels good but at the same time, there’s not time to enjoy it. You’re here to work and you’re here to win games. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing now.”