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January 27, 2012

Gardner's Wild Journey Near Its End

Through the week a ton of news has come about Oklahoma's many visitors of the last month but one player that has stayed eerily quiet is Roseville (Calif.) Sierra C.C. four-star standout Courtney Gardner. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound prospect has been committed to Arkansas since mid-December but has scheduled trips to Oklahoma, Florida, and Florida State since his commitment.

However, he canceled the trips to both the Seminoles and Gators on the consecutive weekends prior to the Jan. 27 visit to Norman. So there was a concern amongst some that he might cancel his trip to Norman. It's unknown if the cause for Jay Norvell's in-home visit on Thursday night was based on that concern - what is known is that the worries were not needed.

"Coach Norvell was here, we were getting my visit date set up, I leave from the house early Friday morning," Gardner said. "I'm really just looking to be surprised by things, I really don't have a thing in my head, I'm looking to be surprised, I've heard it's amazing there. I just want to be around the players and the coaching staff, and could see myself playing there."

Norvell, Oklahoma's receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator, has been recruiting Gardner for a few months but the nation's No. 4 junior college prospect admits he has had to play a bit of catch-up with Arkansas, led by Kris Cinkovich. It seems though that gap may have been somewhat covered as the two have built a good rapport.

"Me and him, we are building a good little relationship already. You know being the offensive coordinator and coaching wideouts, to have that relationship with him, he is telling me I can come in right away and contribute," he said. "I'm not in a rush but I know everything is going to take it's course and I'm looking forward to playing for him if that's where I go.

"I've had numerous times meeting with him and he has met my family numerous times, he knows a lot about my background and the things I've been through. He told me I'd learn a lot more about him and I think it would be great playing for a coach like him and besides academically I talk with him just like I could with coach Cink, we talk about my girlfriend, my classes, and everything."

So is it realistic to think that the time can be made up for?

"It's hard when you really start thinking about it, but it comes down to what best suits me and what I feel comfortable with and I go off my gut feeling. I usually go off my gut and that usually works out for me," he explained.

While what feels best to him will be a part of his decision process he says that he is looking for a few things at any campus he goes to. And after this weekend's visit he will be looking for some input from his family rather than simply going off his 'gut reaction' to his pair of official visits.

"The first thing I do look at is how big the program is. I mean with Arkansas being the way they are - they are an up and coming program - but Oklahoma is a powerhouse. It's a school you can't overlook, they are always going to be a big-time program for them to want me to come in and play right away," he said.

"Coming from the junior college ranks, you don't get a lot of facilities. So I'm looking forward to going and seeing the facilities. Also just being at a place where you know living in a place where you feel like this is where I'm supposed to be.

"I'll be talking to my family. It's 50/50, I always get my family's opinion and my brothers, and we've managed to get it situated everything and what schools I like the most, and at the end of the day I'll be the one who makes the choice but I want to hear from them."

For out of state players often a big issue is finding a common bond with a player currently on the roster from a similar area. But for a guy who has spent considerable time in Louisiana, Nevada, California, and North Carolina it seems that Gardner may be able to throw a rock in the middle of a Sooner football practice and find someone he can converse with.

"The transition with dealing with out of state guys, it really hasn't been a problem with me travelling back and forth between Lousiana and Reno, me moving to north Carolina and California, I'm just looking to see what type of guys are there, and just open up different types of relationships," Gardner admitted.

As mentioned, Gardner's journey to his current place among college football's elite recruits has been an interesting one.

"My freshman year when I got to Reno, the high school, I didn't really like it but I made some friends, but I moved back to Louisiana and I went to Westgate, and stayed there for a semester. Then I moved back to the West coast so I moved to Reno and played there for a couple of years, and didn't even really like it. I was a basketball guy," he said. "Other guys talked me into playing and I played receiver, cornerback, defensive end, safety, just about everywhere.

"As a senior, I didn't pass my graduating assessment so I went to prep school (in North Carolina), because it keeps me a year for college, then tried to take it again and still didn't get it done. So I told myself it was maybe time to move on but I did a year down here (at Sierra C.C.). Last year I didn't get to play the whole season, me and the coaches had some issues to deal with, came back this year and had what I thought was an outstanding season (61 catches for 1,099 yards and 13-touchdowns).

"Me and my friends we talk about it all the time. They tell me 'you've been going through a slow grind, you've got to keep pushing and have some motivation'. But what really motivates me, is my friends that are playing D-1, the glory that I'm getting out of all of this, I didn't get to sign out of HS, signing day being so close I've got the butterflies in my stomach, really.

"I would say the thing that is going on is amazing, from where I came from. I can't even begin to think about everything. The transition from where I came from to how big it is now, I'm just excited and really happy that you guys helped get my name out there."

Gardner hasn't just grown as a player but says the coaching staff at Sierra helped him grow a lot as a leader on the team, even though he admits the journey wasn't easy for them either.

"My coaches have helped me grow up a whole lot. My coaches had me sit out my last three games, he told me I wasn't a leader, I wasn't doing the right things. He wanted me to be more vocal going through the spring and being a returner from last year I stepped up and I had to step up a lot. How to play I really think it stood out a lot last year."

Regardless of how things have gone for him maturing into a team leader and young man, there has never been any doubt about his ability on the football field. He says to a man coaches invariably start at the bottom when talking about what they feel separates Gardner from so many of his peers.

"To start off with that's the first thing we talk about is my footwork and how I run my routes, my hands - I have soft hands and everything," he said. "I think a big thing is how fast I can get to the ball at my size."

With just the Razorbacks and Sooners left to consider he says that he'll return home from Norman and has plans to wait a few days before publicly announcing his decision - a moment he has spent the last three years pursuing.

"I want to push it on National Signing Day, I want to sign on Feb. 1, I think my family would enjoy it but you never know what will happen, but like I told you before, with Oklahoma you can't overlook it."


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