The beauty of James Gardner can be summed up like this: There’s rarely an uncatchable football when he’s the target.
Miami University’s senior wide receiver is 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds. He’s physical and aggressive. And he jumps like a basketball star.
“The only comparison I have in my life is Tyler Eifert, and Tyler Eifert led the NFL in touchdown catches two years ago,” said MU coach Chuck Martin, who coached Eifert at Notre Dame and is entering his fifth season at the RedHawks helm. “I think a lot of people have hands as good as James has, but they don’t have the ability to twist and torque and make the ridiculous play that he makes on a consistent basis. We see it every day.”
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Gardner is one of eight returning offensive starters for Miami, which begins camp Friday in preparation for its Sept. 1 season opener against Marshall at Yager Stadium.
Senior quarterback Gus Ragland and senior tailback Kenny Young are back as well, and with starting experience returning at every position except tight end up front, Martin feels this could be the best offensive line he’s had in Oxford.
Ragland threw for 2,032 yards and 19 touchdowns in nine games last year. Gardner had 47 reeptions for 927 yards and 11 TDs.
“That’s my guy right there,” Gardner said of Ragland, a Moeller High School product. “At the same time, I have a rapport with all the guys. It really doesn’t matter which quarterback is in the game. As long as you throw me the ball, I’m pretty much going to come down with it.”
Martin said everybody can be pushed at every position, and there are six other quarterbacks listed on the RedHawks’ roster. They are junior Alex Malzone (a graduate transfer from Michigan), redshirt freshmen Jackson Williamson and Pete Lampert, and freshmen A.J. Mayer, Michael Bonds and Alec Bornhorst.
But Ragland, a fifth-year senior, is the field general for now.
“He’s 9-1 in league play the last two years, so he’s the clear No. 1 going into camp,” Martin said during Mid-American Conference Media Day last week at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. “Everybody’s trying to push and bite into this playing time, and if they get the opportunity, they’re going to try not to give it back. That’s how Gus got the job. Gus wasn’t the starter, but got an opportunity … and hasn’t given up the helm yet.”
Gardner is on multiple preseason national watch lists and said awards are important to him, but not just the football-based honors.
“The one that’s hitting me the most to my heart is the Allstate (AFCA Good Works Team) because I do a lot of community service in the neighborhood,” Gardner said. “I think that’s the award that I really want to win the most because that just shows the true person that I am off the field and not on the field. You can see me in the games and you can tell that I can play the game. Off the field, I feel that counts the most because I love the kids.”
Martin saw something special in Gardner when he was recruiting him out of Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) High School. Gardner originally committed to Cincinnati, but in the world of college recruiting, nothing is certain until pen hits paper.
“He liked our helmets a lot,” Martin said with a laugh. “I think that was the tipping point. He saw those chrome helmets on TV, and he was excited.
“I think he made a good decision of a good fit for him, and he knew there were opportunities at our place. He had a really good relationship with Coach (Autry) Denson, who was our Florida recruiter at the time.”
Gardner said coming to Miami “was the best decision of my life.”
“Coach Martin and his staff, they showed me a lot of love. They showed that they wanted me to be there,” Gardner said. “I knew that was the place for me educational-wise and football. Miami University has always been seen as the underdog. In high school, I didn’t really get recruited heavily that way. I was also seen as the underdog, so I saw this opportunity to take it and just to be the best player I can be and to make Miami successful.”
Said Martin, “I knew James could play football. He was a crazy great football player. Heck, he played quarterback in high school. Then I’d watch him play basketball and he’d have 45 points and 20 rebounds and would’ve had 50 points if he could make a free throw. So football was never really that concern with what he was going to become. For me, all the off-the-field stuff — the type of student he’s become, the type of person he is on our campus and things he does — I’m probably even more proud of that. The football stuff … I’m not saying it comes easy to him. He works very hard. But he’s pretty gifted.”
Gardner likes being a jump-ball monster on the gridiron. He takes pride in winning one-on-one battles for the ball in the air.
“His catch radius is just crazy,” Martin said. “He runs routes good and he’s big and he’s strong and he can catch the ball, but he makes catches that less than half a percent of the people on the planet can make, even at the NFL level. We’re draped all over him every day in practice, and he still catches eight out of 10. It can be very frustrating to a corner.”
Gardner has NFL skills and aspirations, but he’s determined to help the RedHawks take a step forward from last year’s 5-7 record.
He’s also a sport leadership and management major.
“I’m a great talker, so I’m pretty sure I can be an agent after my football career’s over,” Gardner said. “If not that, I would like to go back to my high school and fulfill my dream of being a high school coach alongside my head coach, Coach (Richard) Dunbar. Hopefully once he retires, I can take his spot.”