LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Louisville quarterback Will Gardner received the diagnosis nearly two years ago, he did everything he could to avoid getting down on himself.
He knew something was not quite right with his surgically repaired right knee, but he did not expect to hear he had re-torn his ACL during his first summer on campus. That only compounded the disappointment of the previous year -- when he missed his entire senior season in high school because of the same injury.
Gardner knew how hard it would be to work to get onto the field, and he told himself to stay positive. "The biggest thing was getting my mind right," he said.
With the support of friends, family and the coaching staff, Gardner took a redshirt that first season in 2012 to recover, and he gained some much-needed perspective. A knee injury was nothing compared to the challenges other people faced every day. So he stayed focused on the road ahead.
He spent last season learning behind Teddy Bridgewater, who is poised to become a top NFL draft pick. But the coaching staff that recruited him, and assured him he could keep his scholarship despite getting hurt in high school, is no longer here. Schemes and terminology have changed. Essentially, everything has changed. But Gardner embraced the opportunities because he realizes what he has in new coach Bobby Petrino.
"That’s every quarterback’s dream, to have a coach like Coach Petrino, who’s had successful offenses," Gardner said.
Gardner has now taken a lead in the race to replace Bridgewater, and is poised to start when the season opens Sept. 1 against Miami. Coaches have been impressed not only with his size (6-5, 230 pounds) but also his athleticism. He seems to be a perfect fit for the high-tempo offense Petrino likes to run.
"Really good fit," Petrino said. "He has presence in the pocket, good size and a quick release and he’s still a great athlete. That’s the one thing I didn’t realize when I first got here is how athletic he is. He had a great week of (strength and conditioning) testing, showed his competitive spirit and leadership with the other players. That’s when you started to see we might have something special here before it’s all over with."
Gardner is not close to being a polished, or even finished, product. Mechanics are a major area in which the coaching staff is working to get him better. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, who also serves as quarterbacks coach, says Gardner needs to do a better job making sure his front shoulder and hips are in proper alignment to improve his accuracy. Footwork is another area in which he needs to improve.
Then there is the decision making. Understanding the concepts in the playbook has been slow for all the quarterbacks. McGee says he requires his players to carry their playbooks at all times and write their notes in red ink, so they stand out from the printed black words.
While they might get what McGee is saying in a meeting, applying it on the field is entirely different. He oftentimes takes out his phone and takes a picture with the flash on.
"I just want to give them a visual of how much time they have to make these decisions," McGee says. "We try to push them, so we can put them in position to be successful."
Louisville already is running through its offensive installation a second time this spring, and Petrino has noticed everybody has made strides. But between now and the opener against Miami, more work has to be done. Chief among them is getting the proper timing down with receivers, who also are transitioning to a new coaching style. Rather than running routes based on how many yards to go, they are now being taught to run routes based on how many steps to take. Precision is required in this offense, so getting the timing down is absolutely critical for Louisville to be as successful as it can be on offense this season.
For his part, Gardner understands what is demanded of the quarterbacks in this offense. He has not only embraced the challenge, but he has also pushed himself to work harder because the competition to start remains open.
After overcoming two torn ACLs, working hard will probably be the easy part.