Take a good look at the two guys grabbing passes for the Toreros. It’s hard to imagine another pair of college receivers looking more natural as they run complicated routes, haul in tough catches and score touchdowns. You’d never guess that in high school one was a quarterback and the other was a soccer player. Implausible as it seems, it’s the truth. Adam Hannula, who is second on USD’s all-time list in career receptions, total yards and touchdowns, was an exceptional high school quarterback recruited to throw the ball for the Toreros, not catch it. His counterpart, Nick Garton, was a lifelong soccer player who gave football a shot in high school and got hooked on the game. Both seniors are savvy enough to know that versatility is crucial to success at football — so when it came time to change jobs, they weren’t caught off guard.
Hannula showed up at Alcalá Park in 2001, fresh off an MVP season at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, Wash., where he threw for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns. Very impressive, but his competition was Eric Rasmussen, who earned the quarterback slot and went on to be one of the best quarterbacks in USD history. Rather than take a back seat, Hannula adapted. Five Torero receivers had graduated, and the coaches thought Hannula had the moves to take on that position. So he did.
“I like challenges, so I went at it with my all,” says Hannula, who also played basketball for USD as a freshman walk-on. “At first I felt like a quarterback playing receiver, but by the end of the first season I was a receiver playing receiver.”
Garton can relate to that fish-out-of-water feeling. A fanatical soccer player who tried football on a whim, he sometimes had to remember which sport he was playing and shake himself out of the instinct to throw a tackle at an opposing soccer player. But he says that his soccer skills and training make him better on the gridiron.
“I’m not the strongest guy on the team, but I can run the farthest,” says Garton, who does double time on the field as a defensive back and one of the Pioneer Football League’s top return specialists. “Soccer helped me with that all-around athleticism and endurance that’s important in any sport.”
Garton and Hannula’s flexibility might help the Toreros nail down a championship. After three straight seasons of finishing one victory shy of going to the PFL championship game, the two seniors knew something had to change. Rather than going home for the summer, they set an example by sticking around San Diego to train for the past three months. They were joined by more than 50 other players. “For both Nick and I, and for a lot of other guys, this was our first summer staying in San Diego,” Hannula says, “and I think this is the strongest and most prepared we’ve ever been at the beginning of a season.”
The duo also attributes their readiness to yet another change — new head coach Jim Harbaugh. In 2004, his first season with the Toreros, the former NFL star and quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders introduced what Hannula and Garton both call an “NFL mentality” — stricter practices, higher expectations and a deeper commitment to the fine points of the game.
“The feeling we have is that every second we waste, the other team can be using that time to get better,” Garton says. “This year we’ve used all of our time productively, because we know that’s what we need to do to get a PFL championship.”
If that’s true, then change surely is a good thing.