KEIFFER GARTON can be a difference-maker. That has been quite apparent ever since he became Penn's No. 1 quarterback as a sophomore late in the 2008 season. He throws, he runs, he takes command.

Other than that, there's not really much to like about the way he influences the outcome.

"He's got the physical talent, but it's even more about his presence," said head coach Al Bagnoli.

That intangible was on the sidelines for five games in the middle of last season because of elbow and knee problems. The Quakers still managed to capture their first Ivy League title since 2003. Now, they've got 15 starters back. But the two guys who mostly replaced Garton last year are no longer around. And Garton is coming off another knee injury, suffered in spring practice, that required surgery to repair a torn ACL. The next bodies on the depth chart at the moment are sophomore Billy Ragone, who got a taste at the start of 2009 before breaking his collarbone, and junior John Hurley, who's still looking for his first experience.

Even so, Bagnoli is in no rush to rely on Garton too much too early, despite the fact that Garton had been given early medical clearance to resume whatever. The opener is Sept. 18, at home against Lafayette.

"We're going to be really cautious with him," Bagnoli explained at yesterday's mediafest at Franklin Field. "If we have two-a-day practices, we're sitting him in one. We're trying to be selective in how much we use him in games at the beginning. We're just being smart. If we're lucky, we have a lot of depth there. There's no reason to [take a risk].

"There's the medical issue, and also the psychological side of overcoming . . . for a kid who runs around. We're going to gradually get him in. The hope is, by Week 2 or 3 or 4, he's feeling really good about himself, he's comfortable, he's healthy. That's a win-win for us at that point.

"We're having mini-wars all the time. I'm telling him 'No,' and he says 'Why?' He's a competitive kid. He's down to his last year. He wants to maximize every opportunity. I'm keeping a tight rein on him. I think it's the right thing to do. We'll see."

Garton, a 6-2, 200-pounder from Castle Rock, Colo., is reluctantly resigned to the inevitable.

"We argue a little bit on that," he acknowledged. "But [Bagnoli] usually wins. I try, but good luck.

"More than anything, it's been real frustrating the last couple of years. I've been working hard to get to play for an entire year. Hopefully, that'll be able to happen."

Whoever's taking the snaps, he will be surrounded by a whole bunch of returning weapons, including the entire front line and the majority of skill positions.

"That's huge," Garton gushed. "We're ready to go. It's very exciting. I was ahead of schedule [coming back]. And I'm feeling really good.

"This is my fourth year. I know pretty much everything about the offense, and a lot of the other guys. We have good chemistry. We all enjoy being around each other. We work hard for each other. It's all about the team. Everyone sees that. Even though last year was rough for me, because of my personal difficulties, it was great for us. We want to have that again."

Interestingly, Penn was picked to finish second in the preseason poll, behind defending runner-up Harvard, which the Quakers beat on the road last November.

"I guess that's not up to us to decide," Garton said, diplomatically. "We have to go out on the field and do it. But we definitely won't forget.

"Since we got back around the first of August, our focus has all been toward doing it again. We [still] have the target on our back. I think we're ready for the challenge, ready to see what we can do. I mean, all the seniors have talked about going out on top. Nothing means more."

One senior, of course, is no longer with them, at least not physically. All-league defensive lineman Owen Thomas, one of their captains, took his life in late April. But Garton insists that Thomas will always remain a very real part of this effort.

"We've talked about it," Garton said. "It was real rough at first, but we've kind of come to terms with it in a way, dealt with it, whether it's individually or being able to lean on one another. We've been able to battle through it. I really think it brought us closer as a team. When you're stressed like that we learned a lot about each other.

"I mean, he was the heart of this group. A great guy, great player, great leader, great friend. Everything. We all miss him, and love him. We do want to do it for him."

Lead away.