The wide receiver corps is usually one of the most diverse position groups on a football team.
It’s one of the only positions where 5-foot-9, 180 pound slot and return specialists are training with 6-foot-4, 225 pound red zone targets.
And the most notable of the bunch is 6-foot-4, 217 pound senior James Gardner (#81).
Gardner broke onto the scene in the preseason last year when he earned a spot on the 2017 Biletnikoff Award Watch List. Although he didn’t win the award for the nation’s best receiver, he earned himself first-team All-MAC honors by finishing the year with 47 receptions, 927 yards and 11 touchdowns while also being named the Redhawks team MVP.
Once again leading up to the 2018 season, Gardner found himself on the 2018 Biletnikoff Award Watch List and is a player I’ll be watching this fall and into the spring when draft season is upon us.
What the Film Says
Last year, Gardner’s breakout game came in September when the Red Hawks traveled to South Bend in what ultimately ended up being a blowout loss to the Fighting Irish, 52-17.
The only player who didn’t looked outmatched, and actually took it to the Irish early in the first quarter, was James Gardner.
On this third and ten, down 14-0 on the road to Notre Dame Gardner runs a sluggo route, fights through contact, effortlessly tracks the ball and out matches the cornerback for the touchdown. The cornerback doesn’t really bite on the sluggo, but once Gardner is in position and able to size up the cornerback he tilts the scales in his favor on the 50-50 ball.
It’s now the third quarter and the game is already a blow out, but Gardner shows up again. Though Gardner isn’t the fastest wide receiver in college football, he moves pretty well for a guy his size and can gather steam to get downfield. The cornerback is able to stay even down the field until Gardner snaps his body around just before the ball arrives. I’d like to see him make a better effort to get both feet in bounds when he’s working the sidelines, but this is an impressive play.
Gardner’s best game last year was against Ohio where he put up 10 receptions, 166 yards and 3 touchdowns. That night he came out with a bang. I thought his very first catch of the game (seen above) was his best. On a third and 21 situation, Gardner bullies a corner down field, flips his hips across, plucks the ball out of the air, and tucks it away for a first down. Gardner is a matchup nightmare when going vertical.
Late in the second quarter, Miami is driving to score a TD before the half. Gardner makes this catch and run on a crucial third and ten. Gardner already impressed me with the deep receptions due to his catch radius and size, but I was waiting for him to show me his abilities after the catch. He is hand fighting with the cornerback into the break of his route when he beats his man on this play. He shows natural hands by plucking the ball and immediately tucking it away. Finally, Gardner is able to make a play after the catch and tack on an extra 20 yards to this reception. The drive would end in a three yard Gardner touchdown reception.
Gardner was having a quiet day against Central Michigan when he gets targeted late in the third quarter on this slant. Gardner’s release is sufficient, he runs a good route, shows a natural hands catch in traffic and stumbles forward for a suitable gain after the catch.
I like this play because it sums up Gardner’s overall game in a nutshell.
He can struggle when pressed but he uses his size, range and hand-fighting technique to get off the line cleanly. He’s not the best route runner but is consistently open off of one cut routes due to his size, ability to box out defenders and a gigantic natural catch radius that allows him to make some unbelievable catches at times. His ability to run after the catch leaves much to be desired, though, as he’s not extraordinarily fast or agile.
Another area of Gardner’s game I found lacking was in the run game as a blocker. Gardner was called for holding on the play, bringing back a long touchdown for Miami against Ball State. Right after the receiver catches the ball and comes up field, Gardner slides back into frame and it’s easy to see him holding the right shoulder of the defender. This is concerning for multiple reasons: why is Gardner holding a man he is in position to block and is much bigger than? Where’s the nastiness and drive as a blocker? How strong is he really? All questions I asked myself many times watching Gardner block in a chunk of games from 2017.
2018 Season Outlook
After a strong improvement from 2016 to 2017, Gardner should be able to improve in all categories statistically heading into 2018. When it comes to his technique I would love to see Gardner make some strides as a route runner, including his releases off the line, and as a blocker. Any small improvement to his hands and speed would be an added bonus.
Gardner was a tough evaluation at times, as he ran a lot of fade, go, post, and curl routes. In order for Gardner to be a factor at the next level he must expand his route tree and ability to get in and out of breaks efficiently. Even though he has some holes in his game, Gardner’s size and ability to track the ball, get in position, and control his body are major strengths and will be big reasons why he’ll be one of the best receivers in the MAC. I think Gardner is a very similar prospect to Cincinnati Bengal’s seventh round draft pick in 2018, Auden Tate. He also reminds me of DeAndre Hopkins at times when he contorts and gets his body in position to make a catch. Often the quarterbacks at Miami (OH) relied on Gardner’s size too much by simply throwing the ball up and telling the big guy, “go get it!” The quarterback situation will not change much this year as QB, Gus Ragland will be returning for 2018 (played in 9 games in 2017). Hopefully another offseason working together leads to an increase in chemistry, statistics and wins for Ragland and Gardner.