The year was 2013, and the game was a big one for D-I opponents Tulane and South Alabama as both teams looked to get their seasons off to a strong start.
For South Alabama cornerback Montell Garner, the contest loomed even larger, since the JUCO transfer prepared to face his stiffest collegiate competition yet in the form of first-team All-Conference wide receiver Ryan Grant.
“Ryan Grant from Tulane, easily the best receiver I faced in college,” said Garner, who's now one of the top darkhorses for a roster spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“My junior year, first year playing D-1. Went down to New Orleans to play Tulane. Thanks to Ryan Grant I had some growing pains that day. He’s by far the best I faced in college, and we (the Steelers) open up with Washington (where Grant currently plays), so it’ll be good to face him again.”
Garner and the Tulane defense were shredded by Grant to the tune of 14 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns that day, but it was the beginning of a rapid maturation process for the young corner. Garner went on to start all 25 games of his two seasons with the Jaguars following his stint at Navarro Junior College.
“Some of the things I learned at South pertain to what we do in the league,” he said. “One of our coaches played in the NFL and he was a young guy, so he basically taught me everything he learned and how to apply it. He told me, ‘If you want to get to this next level, this is what you have to do and this is how you have to understand the game.' So I’ve applied a lot of that here in Pittsburgh.”
To get that Week 1 re-match with Grant, Garner will have to overcome the biggest football challenge of his life -- making the final 53-man roster in the NFL. It’s an objective the cornerback failed to complete last offseason after signing with the St. Louis Rams, but Garner believes the environment in Pittsburgh is much more conducive to his potential success.
“It’s much different here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “When I was with St. Louis, maybe because I was a rookie or if it was just how they did things, but their organization did things a lot differently. I feel like I’m a lot more at home here. I’m with a lot of guys that love each other and want to grow together. There was some of that in St. Louis, but it’s a great experience right now being here.”
Admittedly, the Steelers were probably not Garner’s NFL team of choice after being born and raised in Dallas as a devout Cowboys and Deion Sanders fan. He perks up instantly at the opportunity to talk about his childhood team, fondly recalling the Cowboys' slight interest in him before last year's draft.
“I grew up a Cowboys fan, diehard from the time I was a little baby,” he said. “During the pre-draft process they had a Dallas day for prospects around the Dallas area to come and work out. It was a great experience, just being able to be up there and see the facilities for the first time. Just an awesome experience.”
Sanders may have been Garner’s idol then, but now that the defender has made his way onto an NFL field, he knows that he must find new models to mold his game after. Veteran defensive backs Will Gay and Ross Cockrell have been especially diligent in bringing Garner up-to-speed on the defense, on which the second-year corner spent the spring with the second unit.
“I try to watch all the older guys, see how they do things,” he said. “I played slot, outside and even safety during my career in college and junior college, so I watch all these guys out here. I like to see how they simplify the game, get in better position, watch their technique. I try to grab from everyone that is a veteran, try to learn from them. But some of these rookies, they also come in here with great experience and technique, so I just try to learn from everybody that I can.”