When backup weakside linebacker Gilbert Gardner returned to Indianapolis after training in Arizona during the offseason, he met with his position coach and learned that he'd have a new job this season. He was being inserted into the starter's role vacated by strongside linebacker David Thornton, who left the team as an unrestricted free agent for a new job with the AFC South rival Titans.
Gardner had been a diligent, hard-working player for two years as an understudy, sporadic starter and special teams player. After 22 game appearances, 42 tackles, a sack and an interception, he was going to get the opportunity to anchor a key position on the Colts defense. Fortunately for the Gardner, his primary position at Purdue was strongside linebacker. And he was a pretty disruptive player for the Boilermakers from that spot, making 23 tackles for losses, recovering 7 fumbles, forcing 7, and snagging 3 interceptions.
"I'm hoping I can replicate what I did and build upon what I did at Purdue," he told ColtPower during a recent interview.
And while his experience will be helpful, Gardner recognizes that the switch he's making will be a significant one in this Colts defense.
"Our strongside (linebacker) plays the outside contain a lot more depending on what the Will (weakside) linebacker does," he explained. "There's more responsibility to stay with your assignment, you don't have the freedom to roam around like you do as a Will."
Heading into training camp, unless there's an unexpected shakeup, Gardner will be the only new face on the first-team defense as players begin to compete for their spots on the depth chart. For some, that might present enormous pressure, but Gardner sees it as a plus.
"I think it's more of a comfort that I have guys around me that know what they're doing," he said. "It's added pressure, but it's good pressure that will help me do my best for those guys."
One thing's for sure. Gardner will take what he has learned from his new peers -- starters Gary Brackett and Cato June -- as well as from his former teammate, David Thornton and will step into his new role with the proper attitude.
"Those guys are all tough guys. They've instilled that in the entire linebacking corps," he said.
In addition to proving that he's ready to be a starter at the pro level, one other accomplishment that Gardner has his sights set on this year is to stay healthy. During both of his first two seasons in Indianapolis, he has had ankle problems that caused him to miss a total of five games. Hamstring and shoulder injuries caused him to miss three more.
"That's been a pain in my side for the last two years," he said. "And hopefully I can get through this season healthy. And once I do that, I think my play will speak for itself.
"It's football, and you know you're going to get hurt, and you're going to get banged up. I've tried to make sure those injuries are behind me and make sure my ankles are very strong. But you can't plan injuries, and when they happen you just have to just swallow and move on."
Gardner knows plenty about moving on, even after a severe injury. He was
never plagued by minor injuries during his collegiate career, but he had to
overcome one major one that threatened his football career. He broke his leg,
but managed to rehab it and regain the speed that helped him get recognized by
the Colts, earning him a third-round selection in the 2004 NFL Draft.
And now that it's his turn, his starter's job to lose, he's going to do whatever it takes to hold onto it and to help his team win.
"It kind of feels like a new career for me," he said. "And I hope I can start it off on the right foot and get it going."
One man that definitely believes that Gardner will indeed "get it going" is his head coach, Tony Dungy. While talking about Gardner, Dungy recently said, "I think he's going to seize the opportunity."
It was a vote of confidence that meant a lot to Gardner.
"To hear that from the head coach, that's a great compliment,"
he said. "Also, coming from a man like him, it makes you want to play
even harder and makes you want to give everything you've got to help this team
to win -- and to do everything you can to win for him."