Starkville High School senior wide receiver Cameron Gardner, a Mississippi State commitment, tries to break away from a tackle against Northwest Rankin. Gardner has become a bigger part of the Yellow Jackets’ offense in recent weeks. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff Buy this photo.
October 12, 2017 10:10:55 AM
STARKVILLE -- Chris Jones' quick scouting report on Cameron Gardner was simple: the tools are all there, but the statistics are not. Jones, then recently hired as Starkville High School's football coach, was certain that would change.
The run-based offenses in Starkville's recent history didn't feature Gardner's talents as prominently as Jones planned, and the results are beginning to show. Gardner's gone for 145 yards and four touchdowns on nine catches in his last two games, showing exactly what Jones saw in him before coaching him for a single snap.
"I think a lot of it is us getting him the opportunities," Jones said. "He's capable, it's just hard to make plays as a wideout when you're not getting the opportunity. I think when he touches the ball, we have a pretty good chance to win."
The returns on the investment in Gardner weren't immediate.
Starkville's first two games, against Noxubee County and Oxford, ended with just three total catches for Gardner for 56 yards, including just one catch for two yards against Oxford in a double overtime game. In the team's first district game, against Provine, Gardner came away with two catches for 23 yards in which Starkville attempted 26 passes.
It couldn't have been what Gardner imagined of playing for a former NFL wide receiver -- especially when combined with stability at quarterback, a luxury not granted to Gardner last year.
"They always tell me to be patient and keep doing my job and they're going to find me," Gardner said. "They're going to put me somewhere where I can get the ball.
"I wouldn't say frustration, I just knew I had to be patient and not rush it."
The Columbus game, game No. 4, was the first glimpse: three catches for 81 yards, two of those catches going for touchdowns.
What stands out about Gardner's recent breakout is that it could have included an extra touchdown. Not included in Gardner's six-catch, 96-yard and two-touchdown performance against Northwest Rankin was a catch at the back of the end zone that was ruled incomplete; if video review were available, it likely would have ruled the catch a touchdown.
The extra production not only puts Gardner on the map for opposing defenses, but also makes the entire Starkville offense more lethal. Even after the recent outburst, Gardner is only second on the team in receptions and receiving yards; Cameron Hines leads the team in both categories. Gardner is one of four Starkville receivers with at least 15 catches this season.
As Jones put it, Gardner becomes a piece to the puzzle, not the puzzle itself.
"If we can just get him targets, I think they'll start shading his way or cheating toward his side of the play and other guys will have a chance to get open," Jones said.
From here, Gardner plans on continued growth. He can already see the influence of Jones' NFL background -- one year with the Minnesota Vikings and two years with the Seattle Seahawks before a couple of seasons in the Canadian Football League.
"The drills and stuff we're doing, he runs drills with us sometimes because he did it in the NFL," Gardner said, "and we'll run plays from the NFL."
It's a nice stroke of luck for a Mississippi State commit to get such exposure in his final year of high school. Such usage in the offense under such coaching is almost certain to increase Gardner's potential for the future -- even if Jones won't get to see it himself.
"I feel like he'll get better and better, each and every game. He's far from what he could be: honestly, I think he could be something really, really special." Jones said. "I wish I had another year, to be honest. He's just starting to scratch the surface.
"You ask what he could be? I won't get to see that, to be honest. I'm trying to compare him to somebody that's in the (NFL) or in college right now, but it's hard. He's rare."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter, @Brett_Hudson
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