UConn Football: Windsor's T.J. Gardner Excited For Rentschler Debut
By William S. Paxton
Apr 13, 2018 at 6:00 AM
T.J. Gardner has sat in the stands and stood on the grass, but Saturday he will get the opportunity to be part of the action at Rentschler Field.
The UConn redshirt freshman linebacker from Windsor, who grew up about 20 minutes from the Huskies' home turf, can't wait for the noon kickoff in the annual Blue-White scrimmage, the traditional conclusion to spring practice.
"First live action at Rentschler, so that will be exciting," the 6-foot-2, 236-pound Gardner said Thursday after the last practice of the spring session. "I always rooted for the Huskies. I always wanted to see them do well. To be able to be a part of that team and that program is great.
"Being back out there and being able to hit some people is exciting to me."
Gardner's excitement level has carried over to the practice field of late.
"I don't know what happened, you'll have to ask him," UConn head coach Randy Edsall said. "Sometimes young people, it takes them a little bit longer to pick things up, but I know coach (Jon) Wholley has talked to him, I've talked to him ... and probably a week ago, week and a half ago, all of a sudden we've seen a different guy.
Saturday is looking like a perfect day for the @UConnFootball Spring Game.
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"You see a different guy playing faster doing the things that you thought when you recruited him that he was going to be able to do, Sometimes it takes a little longer for guys to hit their strides."
So why is Gardner, a 2016 All-Courant linebacker, hitting his stride now?
"Getting more comfortable with my assignments has allowed me to play much faster than I was last year," he said. "The way they are teaching it is a little bit different and it allows us to be able to read and react and play fast."
Gardner spent last season adapting to college life, and while he wasn't in uniform on game days, he studied defensive coordinator Billy Crocker's system.
"It definitely gave me the opportunity to get acclimated to the schoolwork," he said, "and get me stronger, faster, and more comfortable along with learning the scheme, so I think that was beneficial for me."
The Huskies lost a lot from last season's squad at linebacker, so Gardner has plenty of competition for playing time.
"It's definitely good to have the competition because we are all raw, hungry and want to play," he said. "We all push each other to get each other better, so it's good for everyone."
The Huskies spent their morning practice running some special teams drills, but otherwise it was more of a walk-through for the scrimmage. Edsall is taking a simple approach to the game.
"I just want to see us get better again," said Edsall, who went 3-9 in his first season back with the program a year ago. "I'm not looking for anything different but 'hey, it's the 15th practice,' and I just want to see guys that have gotten better from practice 14 and from practice 12 when we scrimmaged the last time.
"(Let's) see what these guys can do."
The 15 days of practice will provide the coaching staff with a base for evaluating the players, but with the next three months off, a lot can change before August training camp begins.
"There are going to be thoughts formulated based off the 15 days, but then a lot can change," Edsall said. "These guys can get a lot better, which we expect them to do. Then, we are bringing in freshmen this summer."
Building The Line
One group that took a beating last season was the offensive line, which allowed an American Athletic Conference-worst 35 sacks.
Center Ryan Crozier has remained sidelined this spring after a second major knee surgery, but the Huskies have seen some bright spots for first-year offensive line coach Frank Giufre to build on.
After playing the last two years at left tackle, Matt Peart appears to be settling in on the right side.
"They've gotten a lot better," Edsall said of the group. "I've been very pleased with Matt Peart. He's become a little more dominant from a year ago. That's something we have talked to him about, and you see him being more physical."
Left tackle Ryan Van Demark and guard Cam DeGeorge have made strides in the workouts, while guard Bryan Cespedes has been pushing for time.
"Ryan Van Demark has done really well," Edsall said. "Cam DeGeorge has been steady and improving.
"Probably the guy on the offensive line who has probably come the furthest is Bryan Cespedes."
Edsall also mentioned center Stanley Hubbard "getting more comfortable" along with tackle James Tunstall and guard Robert Holmes.
"Right now, we have eight guys there, if you want to look at it, and then Ryan Crozier will be coming back as well," the head coach said. "Right now you say we have three tackles, three guards and two centers — you'd like to have more but Frank has done a good job and those kids have done a really good job doing the things he's asked them to do." … Wide receiver Hergy Mayala (knee) remains out of practice along with defensive back Tahj Herring-Wilson (head). … Tight end Tyler Davis (head) practiced for the second straight day. … Running back Kevin Mensah (academics) also remains sidelined.