Will Gardner has been waiting three years for his chance to start at quarterback.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Replacing a legend at quarterback is rarely as easy as Kenny Hill made it look Thursday night at South Carolina.
Ask Joel Stave (Wisconsin after Russell Wilson), Barrett Trotter (Auburn after Cam Newton or Josh Nunes (Stanford after Andrew Luck). Yes, I did have to look up those names.
The next player the college football world will be looking up is Will Gardner, Louisville's starting quarterback Monday night against Miami in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
It's unfair to compare him to Teddy Bridgewater, who never appeared to burp last season (four interceptions in 427 passing attempts) while winning a dozen games for the Cardinals.
It's unfair to compare him to Hill, who out-Manzieled Johnny Manziel while hanging 511 passing yards on South Carolina in the 52-28 victory by Texas A&M in Columbia Thursday.
It's unfair to compare him to anybody but Will Gardner, a quarterback who had scholarship offers from Alabama and Mississippi State before he committed to Louisville three years ago.
Remember two important facts: A) Will Gardner has not started a football game since August 2011 – and he did not finish that game because he tore the ACL in his right knee on the first play of the second quarter for Coffee County (Ga.) High and B) his college experience includes exactly one dozen passing attempts (8 completions).
So remember: That's 13 minutes as a high school senior in 2011. A redshirt season in 2012. And 12 passing attempts a year ago.
But some will play the comparison game – starting Monday night.
Gardner's high school coach, Ken Eldridge, a friend who considers the player a son, believes Gardner is ready for it.
“It's not easy,” Eldridge said. “But I think Will is going to be fine with it. Coach (Bobby) Petrino has worked him very hard and prepared him for this moment. The kid can make every throw in the field. There's not a throw he can't make.”
You expect a high school coach to tout one of his former players. It's as inevitable as fans comparing the new quarterback to the guy who preceded him. But Eldridge has reasons for his faith in Gardner – a string of them.
Gardner is a player who was forced to start his first varsity game as a sophomore in 2009 because the senior starter at Coffee County in Douglas, Ga., suffered a concussion during a scrimmage. Gardner played well enough that he split time with the upperclassmen the rest of the season.
“Will played so well we couldn't afford to not have him on the field,” Eldridge said. “He's a natural leader that guys want to follow. And they will follow him.”
Eldridge said Gardner became so passionate about becoming the best quarterback in the state that even though he excelled in baseball, he gave up that sport during his junior season. Instead, he ran track – the 110-meter hurdles, for the first time in his life.
Why the hurdles?
Gardner was convinced it would improve his ability to scramble. “Will lowered his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.83 to 4.67,” Eldridge said.
Recruiters noticed that. They always make a big deal of 40-yard dash times.
Jim McElwain, Nick Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama, started making regular visits to Coffee County High School. So did Dan Mullen, the head coach at Mississippi State. So did Louisville coach Charlie Strong and his offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.
All three schools offered Gardner a scholarship before his senior year. How does a kid growing up in Southeastern Conference territory say “No,” to Alabama?
“Will visited Alabama,” Eldridge said. “He went to camp there, too. But once he went to a camp up at Louisville, he just felt at home up there. It just felt like a good fit for him.”
Gardner's vibe about Strong and Watson was justified 13 minutes into his senior season. On the first snap of the second quarter, Coffee County tried a running play against Brunswick. Gardner made the handoff. The back fumbled.
Gardner scrambled to get into position to make the tackle. He twisted on his right knee. He tore the ACL. Don't forget the most important part of the story. As Gardner's ACL was tearing, he reached out and popped the ball away from the Brunswick linebacker who had scooped up the fumble.
“That's just Will,” Eldridge said, “being able to knock the ball away and cause that guy to fumble and fumble it back to us. That's how he competes. That's how he leads.”
Eldridge and Gardner's father called Strong and Watson with the news that Gardner would miss his entire senior season on the Monday after the injury. Eldridge said the Louisville coaches told them the scholarship offer was firm. Will Gardner was the quarterback they wanted.
On Monday night, more than three years after that play, Will Gardner will finally start another football game. Ken Eldridge will be watching every snap from his home in east-central Georgia, where he now coaches Swainsboro High School.
“I'm pretty sure Louisville fans are going to like what they see,” Eldridge said.