(EDITOR’S NOTE: There are a lot of photos in this article, and we made the decision to make them all full size. Be sure to read down past each image.)
One of the gems of Idaho’s 2014 recruiting class, excitement was palpable around the UI program when Michael Garner made his verbal commitment to the Vandals. Unfortunately, Idaho fans had to wait a year before getting a good look at the Madison (San Diego, CA) High School star.
In the meantime, the Vandal passing attack started to find its wings last fall as converted quarterback Joshua McCain became one of the surprises of the season. With redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Linehan making McCain his No.1 target right out of the gate, the senior wide receiver put up outstanding numbers for the Vandals. A late addition to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, McCain got off to a furious start. After just five games, his first collegiate action as a wide receiver, he led the Sun Belt Conference in yards per game (113.6) and receiving touchdowns (6). Nationally he was sixth in the FBS in TDs, 10th in receiving yards per game, and 15th in receptions per game. An injury to Linehan resulted in Idaho’s passing attack slowing down as McCain’s numbers diminished slightly. But the transformation of McCain set the stage for what a Paul Petrino offense could produce.
The year before in 2013, the first under Petrino, highly regarded JUCO recruit Dezmon Epps had a similarly explosive impact, approaching the 1,000 yard receiving mark. All told he caught 79 passes for 980 yards, the fourth best by a Vandal receiver since 2000, and was added to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List (there is a pattern forming here). The Vandals had a less dynamic passing attack that season with dual-threat redshirt freshman quarterback Chad Chalich under center, but Epps gave Idaho an ability to stretch the field unlike any Idaho receiver in recent years.
This fall Garner wants to make a similar impact. Idaho will be without McCain, but rumor has it that Epps, who was dismissed from the team last fall, may be rejoining the program this year for his senior season. Regardless, with juniors Deon Watson and Jacob Sannon and sophomore David Ungerer, plus numerous others working their way up through the system, the stage should be set for a potent Idaho passing attack in 2015.
|br> Garner stretches out to haul in a pass.|
THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID about commitment and perseverance. Over a year before signing day 2014, Idaho made its first connection with Garner, who already had a scholarship offer from the Arizona Wildcats of the Pac-12 conference. Long odds, indeed, that Idaho would win that recruiting battle.
“They started recruiting me on a phone call to my coach during track season,” Garner recalled for GoVandals.net recently. “It was February of 2013. They called my coach, he gave me the phone and they said they’d like to offer me a scholarship. They said they really liked my explosiveness and that I was really dynamic.”
Despite such long odds, it was the relationship that quarterbacks coach Bryce Erickson developed with Garner that opened the door. That connection became the start of a relationship that ultimately led to Idaho picking up an outstanding wide receiver prospect.
“Going into my senior year I had an offer from the University of Idaho and the University of Arizona,” Garner said. “Arizona came on a lot earlier, towards the end of my sophomore year. I had 30+ colleges recruiting me. A few wanted to wait until my third game to offer me, but due to the injury that ended my season in the first game of my senior year, everything just dropped off. That’s when I decided to commit [to Idaho].
“I really liked the community; the community was a big part of my decision. I think it’s a really good fit.
“But they were committed to me through my injury, so I decided it was a good idea to stay committed to them and give them my word.”
An unlikely pickup early in the recruiting process, Idaho never lost sight of the potential impact an athlete like Garner could have on the program.
|br> Garner on the move.|
NOW IT IS UP TO GARNER to put in the work and dedication required to make an FBS lineup, and he is well aware of the challenges ahead. Whether that is as a starter, or being part of the rotation, or as a special teams demon, Garner is ready to start the process of earning a position on the field.
An athlete with a good head on his shoulders, he also knows it isn’t a given that he will play immediately, and that he will be competing with numerous athletes for a spot.
“I’m not really content with where I am,” Garner said. “I need to improve my leg strength, that’s the biggest thing. I’m very explosive and I have strong legs already, but my legs are what are going to keep my going and running by linebackers, so I need to improve size-wise and get even faster.”
And for the versatile athlete who is fully healed from the injury that ended his senior season, his focus will be on the slot receiver position for the Silver and Gold.
“For me personally, I changed into a slot receiver at the end of my sophomore year. I prefer to play slot receiver, but I also played running back growing up, and defense too. I prefer slot receiver, but anywhere coach needs me; I’ve done special teams as well.
“I’m just willing to get on the field and step up and play.”
And why the slot?
“Because I feel like I’m very explosive and I have good speed; I feel like I’m a good match-up against bigger linebackers who are slower; I’m able to create space. I have the freedom to get the ball quick and do my own thing.”
Does he model his game after anyone in particular?
“I like to look at Tavon Austin a lot. He’s one person I try to model my game after. I find a lot of similarities in my game compared to him, so I want to be that kind of player.”
With the speed Garner brings to the field (4.48 hand-timed forty, 4.54 electronic), Idaho has to be looking at him to bolster the special teams units. “When they were recruiting me they said they wanted to utilize me on special teams,” Garner said. “That’s one of my favorite things about football is special teams; punt return and kickoff return.”
To give you a chance to make plays in space, to improvise? “It’s just an athlete being an athlete.”
|br> Garner with a 4.48-40 (hand-timed) and 4.54-40 (electronic).|
ON HIS OFFICIAL VISIT LAST YEAR Garner was hosted by Dezmon Epps. Garner knew about Epps’ performance in 2013, and watched closely what McCain did last year. He has hopes to emulate, and hopefully build upon, what they accomplished.
“I feel like Idaho produces a lot of good receivers. Explosiveness, top end speed, or whether its consistent hands, I think all of them have those traits. I want to keep the tradition going of producing good receivers. Hopefully I can fill in one of the spots, get on the field and do as best as I can and be as good as they were.”
He knows the players he will be lining up along side next year as they try to take Idaho’s passing attack to the next level. “It will be a good 1-2 combo on either side,” Garner said of playing next to Watson and Sannon and others. “I think I’ll be a good addition, but I have to go in there and earn a starting spot like anyone else.”
So what does he see as the biggest challenge to getting on the field this fall?
“Understanding the playbook. If you don’t understand the playbook, you won’t get any time on the field. The next thing is footwork. You can be as fast as you want, but without footwork you’re not going to get anywhere, you’re not going to create separation, you’re not going to make routes. You need footwork to do just about anything, no matter what position you are.”
For the athlete interested in Physical Training after football is over, following a collegiate career at Idaho (and possibly time at the next level), the stage is set for Garner to make an impact with the Vandals, whether it is this fall or in the years ahead.