By working hard and taking advantage of their physical gifts, Park View High School seniors Joe Larson and Andrew Hoffman have put themselves on the cusp of achieving the same goal: going to a Division I college on a full football scholarship.

Hoffman already has firmed up plans; he accepted a scholarship from the University of Virginia in June, becoming the first player in Park View--and perhaps Loudoun County--history to accept an early offer. Hoffman officially will sign a letter-of-intent in February.

A similar deal for Larson is imminent--right now, Virginia Tech and Maryland are the top two schools on his list.

Both are strong students (Larson has a 3.6 grade-point average; Hoffman has a 3.64) interested in studying engineering in college. Both have played a large role in the Patriots' success this year: an undefeated regular season, a second consecutive district championship, a second straight playoff berth. And both have kept one eye on the future and one on the present--"College is always in the back of your mind," Larson said. "Playing for a state championship is the first thing in your mind."

But while they will leave the Sterling school on the same note, it's worth pointing out that they began their high school careers at very different stages of development, in terms of football. Larson took up the sport in sixth grade when he joined the Lower Loudoun Boys Football League. Hoffman--well, he had never played organized football before.

The Natural

Park View Coach Mickey Thompson took one look at Joe Larson in fall 1996 and told the freshman, "If you come in here and work hard, in four years you will play Division I football."

"He had size and athleticism [as a freshman]," Thompson said. "He was a natural football player and also a good athlete. There are a lot of athletes who are not good football players because they are stiff-hipped. But when Joe was younger, he was able to roll his hips and get into people."

Larson also played soccer, baseball and basketball while growing up but decided to focus on football after freshman year.

"Joe has always excelled in everything," said his mother, JoAnn. "In school, in sports--everything has come natural to him. He's stubborn, so once he sets his mind to something, he does it."

Larson, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 215 pounds, decided that he wanted to play college football. He trains year-round for football, lifting weights and going to camps to improve his speed.

"You don't necessarily have to be able to bench 300 pounds to play high school football," said Larson, who benches 315. "But you need that strength for college football; that could make or break you."

This year, Larson has caught 15 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns, and he has rushed for 248 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries. He was named first team all-Northwestern District as a tight end.

Defensively, he has made 27 first hits and leads the team in sacks (four) and recovered fumbles (two). Thompson recently moved Larson from defensive tackle to linebacker to help the team, as well as to help market Larson to college coaches.

"Joe is one of the rare kids who is a real good blocker and hitter but can also do the athletic things," Thompson said. "He has good hands. He can run the football. He could play quarterback. He really understands the game."

Larson's most important role is that of the blocking back in the Patriots' single-wing offense. Thompson installed the single-wing to take advantage of the skills of two players: Junior quarterback Nick Smith, who is a dangerous runner and passer, and Larson, who has the versatility to play blocking back.

"I do a little bit of everything," Larson said. "I lead plays and block; I get to run the ball; I get to catch the ball. In our scheme, there are even a couple of plays designed for me to throw the ball."

"When you put it all down, he is the key to their offense, because of his blocking," Liberty Coach Joe Trabucco said. "I'm in awe of him. You don't find too many high school backs who want to block. He's going to make a good college player."

The Late Bloomer

Janet Richardson remembers how her son, Andrew Hoffman, used to take his football playbook to bed and wake up the next morning with the playbook still beside him. At the time, Hoffman was a sophomore playing his first year of varsity football, and he was trying hard to learn the game.

"I'm the kind of guy that the coaches have to tell me what to do," Hoffman said. "I can understand simple plays, and I can see things developing, but I'm not real football literate."

That's because Hoffman got a late start playing football. He played other sports--namely, soccer and baseball--as a child, but when he asked his mother if he could try football in middle school, she told him that he had to wait until high school to play.

"I just felt that football was a sport where you needed to have more experienced coaches who knew what kind of protection the kids needed," Richardson said. "When Andrew played baseball, there was a [youth] football field near the baseball diamond. And I always saw the ambulance more often at football than at baseball."

Hoffman played on the freshman team and then moved up to the varsity as a sophomore. He was bothered by knee problems that year, and then, as a junior, he missed part of preseason and the first regular season game with a broken foot. This has really been Hoffman's first full season of football.

"He's had to learn football as he's gone along," Thompson said. "He's become more and more accustomed to the game. Hitting was never a problem for Andrew. But things like getting off of people and finding seams to run to the ball--those are things that he has had to learn. He's a very hard worker."

Hoffman, like Larson, has worked hard in the weight room to improve his strength (he now benches 320 pounds), and he has also attended camps to improve his speed.

"Our coaches really instilled in me the idea that you've got to work hard," Hoffman said. "Sophomore year was when they really got ahold of me. I basically stayed down in the weight room and was always the last one to leave. I work as hard as I can to get stronger and better."

The work has paid off. Hoffman finished the regular season with 22 first hits, 12 assists, two sacks, two caused fumbles and one blocked punt. He made his first all-district team this fall: He was a unanimous first team all-Northwestern District selection at defensive tackle.

College coaches love Hoffman's size--he's listed at 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds--his athleticism and his potential. "They project him to be 20 to 30 pounds bigger and still be able to run," Thompson said. "There aren't many people who are able to carry that weight and still be athletic."