Bill Hass on the ACC: Jackets' Andrew Gardner Adapts to Blocking Scheme of New System
Sept. 4, 2008
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - It's normal for college football players to rise at an early hour and either walk across campus or take a short drive from an apartment en route to class or a weightlifting session.
Andrew Gardner of Georgia Tech carries that a step further, jumping in his car and contending with early-morning traffic heading into Atlanta. Gardner, a fifth-year senior, is married and lives outside the city.
"My first class is at 9 or if I have to work out that's at 7, and it's maybe a 40-minute commute in traffic," Gardner said. "It's pretty much like a job - I get up in the morning, go to work and come home at night."
When he can, he finds time to do some office work at the Georgia Tech Research Institute to earn a few extra bucks.
In other words, Andrew Gardner is pretty much like an ordinary working stiff - except he's anything but a stiff. At 6-6, 305 pounds, he mans the left tackle position for the Yellow Jackets and is one of the best offensive linemen in the ACC and in the country.
Georgia Tech, coming off a season-opening 41-14 win over Jacksonville State, steps up considerably in competition Saturday when it travels to Boston College in what will be the ACC's first conference game of the season. Gardner has the attention of Eagles coach Jeff Jagodzinski.
"I think he's one of the quality offensive linemen in the league, a really good player," Jagodzinski said. "He's a good drive blocker in what (first-year coach Paul Johnson) is asking him to do in their option attack. He's a dominant player at the point of attack.
"He's a good athlete, does a lot of good things, moves his feet. If he stays healthy I'm sure he'll have an opportunity to play on Sundays."
Johnson's option offense is quite a change from the pro-style offense favored by Tech's previous coach, Chan Gailey. But Johnson believes good players adapt to changes.
"Andrew is a good football player and he would do very well no matter what the scheme we were in," Johnson said. "We're excited about what he brings to the offense. He's progressing very well."
Johnson said there's not as much difference in the blocking scheme on option runs as most people think, and pass blocking is still pass blocking.
Of course, as someone who has had to make those adaptations, Gardner has a slightly different perspective.
"For an offensive lineman, the switch from what we did before with Coach Gailey and what we do with Coach Johnson now is probably about as big a difference as you can have between two different blocking schemes," Gardner said.
"In the past, we were in a balanced stance and would go in any direction. There was a lot of pass protection, zone blocking; that type of thing. And now they have us in a stance with 60-40 weight forward. You're looking to go straight forward. We don't do any pure drop-back pass protection stuff. So it's a pretty big adjustment and a pretty big change."
Gardner said this system is similar to what he learned at Sandy Creek High School, where his offensive line coach was a graduate of Georgia Southern. That's where Johnson coached for many years before moving on to Navy.
"So a lot of what he taught me is the same type of stuff that I'm being taught now," Gardner said. "We've been doing this since the spring, so you've got to be able to adjust as you go. One of the things that makes a good football player is being able to adjust to new schemes and new ways of playing.
"I wouldn't say I feel as comfortable as I did last year after three years of playing that style, but I feel good and we got some of the kinks out in this first game. I'm looking forward to being even more comfortable as we get into the second game against BC.
"The coaches say the biggest jump, the biggest improvement a team has, is between game one and game two. We want to make that jump and we don't want to make the same kind of mistakes."
BC pitched a 21-0 shutout in its opener against Kent State. Gardner said the Eagles have a big, athletic front seven that is strong against the run. Last year, their defensive game plan was to not let Tech tailback Tashard Choice beat them, and they held him to 31 yards on 15 carries. Choice has moved on to the NFL. Gardner believes the Yellow Jackets, with their new offense, will be harder to defend this year.
Whoever wins will be on top of their division for at least a week, an appealing prospect.
"Hopefully you get a game up on everyone else," Gardner said. "You're 1-0 in the conference and other people are trying to catch you."
It's no surprise that Gardner wound up at Georgia Tech. He has been a lifelong Yellow Jacket fan and his sister and brother went to school there. But for a while he thought he might have to settle for playing what was then known as Division I-AA football.
"Going into my senior year my coach told me if I gained weight I could play Division I(A)," Gardner said. And he did. "I had offers from Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. I would have gone to Georgia Tech even if I had been the No. 1 offensive line prospect in the country (and had others options). So it worked out pretty well for me."
He weighed about 260 when he reported to his first preseason camp, gained 20 pounds during his red-shirt season and has added a few more each year with no loss of mobility. Naturally, he has thought about playing in the NFL but realizes some of that is beyond his control.
"I want to become the best player I can, play my best and hopefully I will show the skills and the talent that the scouts want to see and make a good impression out there," he said.
On track to graduate in December with a degree in Management, Gardner capably juggles the school, football and married aspects of his life. He and his wife, Jennifer, dated in their high school days and were married in May of 2007.
"I've played football the entire time I've known her," he said, "and she understands, especially in season, that I'm going to be at football practice a lot and that takes up a lot of my time. It's not really much of a problem. I don't think my being married makes life any more difficult. Having her support makes things easier."
Gardner doesn't have any long-range vision for his life other than, somewhat tongue in cheek, "having my own business and being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company."
Other than that, his dreams are simple.
"I want to be happy, be with my wife, have a family, enjoy life and be with people I love," he said.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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