By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
WINCHESTER - At some point during the 2010 football season, Phillip Gardner had to concede the worst - despite winning the starting quarterback job at Moravian (Pa.) College as a freshman, the Richmond native knew he'd made a mistake.
"I really wanted to get out of state," Gardner said during Shenandoah University's football media day on Saturday. "Looking back on it, it wasn't the best decision."
Four games into that freshman campaign at Moravian in a contest against Johns Hopkins University, Gardner's season ended when he sustained a blackout-inducing concussion. It was the second of his football career, with the first coming during his final high school game for Richmond's Lee-Davis - Gardner left the field that night on a stretcher.
Sidelined for the season and out of football altogether in 2011, Gardner had time to rethink that initial college decision. He had been recruited by Shenandoah, had even kept in touch with Hornets offensive coordinator Brian Wolf. An invitation from Wolf to come down for Shenandoah's season opener against Stevenson last year prompted Gardner to make the trip to Winchester, and he was hooked then and there.
"I guess you could say it was a really good learning experience," Gardner said of playing at Moravian. "It was harder to adjust there - it was seven and a half hours away from home, I didn't know anybody there. Just coming here, [Shenandoah senior starting left tackle] Jake Brent went to my high school and he just really kind of took me under his [wing] and introduced me to everybody. It was just a better fit."
Gardner, who arrived at school for the spring semester, spent a good two months cramming film sessions into his week. That work, combined with his ability on the field, earned the 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore a shot at the starting job as Shenandoah prepares for its Sept. 1 season opener at Stevenson.
"Phil's doing a solid job," Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes said. "Right now we're just knocking off some of the rust - he hasn't played for a while. He's going to be a good leader, and just getting used to the system I see great improvement [for him]."
The task is daunting for Gardner, who is expected to replace record-setting quarterback Danny Wright as the Hornets move into their first season in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. Gardner, for his part, realizes he doesn't have the grasp of the offense that Wright spent four seasons attaining in the program. Instead, he's been asked to rely on his athleticism and game-management ability as the playbook continues to sink in.
Gardner is counting on an experienced group of skill position players surrounding him, plus a veteran offensive line largely intact from last season, to help make the transition smoother.
"All those guys know the system well," Gardner said. "I guess it's just a matter of me not messing up at this point."
Qiydaar Murphy, the Hornets' returning leading receiver from last year after ranking second to record-setting wideout Rico Wallace last year, knows his role is about to change as well. Although he doesn't slide directly into Wallace's old spot - that task falls on Adam Tibbs - Murphy is expecting an increased workload as the focus of the Hornets' offense shifts a bit toward the collective. Still, if anyone will be called on to become the next Wallace - now battling for a spot with the NFL's Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent - that receiver likely is Murphy.
"I feel like coach Barnes is looking at me to be a leader, especially being in my true senior year as a football player," Murphy said. "Knowing that we kind of have a couple wide receiver voids that we have to fill, he's kind of looking to me, just based on my season last year, to expand a little bit. In a way, without saying it myself, but he said it - he wants me to be that go-to guy, so I'm just kind of accepting the pressure and understanding my new role as a team leader."
Murphy was plenty productive last year, totaling 58 catches for 609 yards and four touchdowns. He may well put up Wallace-like numbers this year, but Murphy goes about it in his own way.
"I try my best to try and not compare myself to Rico," Murphy said. "He and I are the best of friends, so I don't want anyone to get it confused that it's any disrespect or anything. I'm not Rico, and Rico's not me. I feel like I pride myself on body control and finding the ball. Rico was very good at a lot of things. He was more like the home run guy. I was more like, 'Let's get a first down' type-of-guy, screens and plays over the middle, stuff like that.
"I'm not going to say that I can't be the home run guy, and I'm sure that coach Barnes expects me to be that. I look forward to it."
Murphy isn't the only player expecting to carry a heavier burden on offense this season. Carl Joseph, who gained a team-best 720 rushing yards while splitting time last year at tailback with Brad Martz, could become more of a featured back for the Hornets this year. Joseph still expects a balanced attack from Shenandoah, though, no matter who's taking the snaps.
"Right now, I feel as though we can do anything we put our minds to," said Joseph, a returning starter along with fullback P.J. Athey. "If we need to pass the ball, we'll pass the ball. If we have to run the ball, we will run the ball. Both of those things will be accomplished."
Much of Shenandoah's confidence is based on that veteran offensive line, anchored by Brent at left tackle and veteran Chris Lewis at center. Even the Hornets' tight end tandem of Stephen Dellinger and Austin Barnes - the coach's son - offer valuable returning experience as the offense reforms under Gardner.
"I think the main thing with the offense is just cohesiveness, learning to play together up front," Paul Barnes said. "We've got the guys who can play. We've just got to play together."