BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Rodney Garner admits he’s a tough critic.
Auburn’s defensive line coach doesn’t dabble in public relations. You won’t find him striking an optimistic tone if he deems his unit’s performance underwhelming. If his unit plays badly, he’ll say it. Garner believes that’s the only way to be fair to the players he’s tasked with molding into dominant defensive linemen.
And after a less-than-stellar performance in the team’s first scrimmage of fall camp last week, Garner said he “went off the deep end.”
“I didn’t get it done,” he said. “My guys have got to play better, perform better. We’ve got to be more physical, got to maintain gap containment, keep the quarterback (in the pocket), seal the edges. This is a bottom line business.”
A zero-sum game, yes. But playing for the Tigers is also an incredible opportunity — something Garner can speak of first hand. He was an All-SEC selection and an All-American honorable mention as a member of Auburn’s offensive line in 1988, a season that saw the Tigers capture the SEC Championship.
That’s why he tells his players they need to treasure the chance they’ve been given.
“They’ve got an awesome, awesome opportunity,” he said. “They’re at a school where the fans love you, and they love you unconditionally. It’s truly a family. When you go 3-9 and you have 84,000 people show up for your spring game, that’s unconditional love.”
The outpouring of support should come with a price, Garner said. They have to reciprocate the affection by producing on the field.
“That’s why the pressure needs to be on us, to make sure we don’t disappoint,” Garner said. “We’ve got to do our part.”
After the Tigers added three highly-prized freshman defensive linemen in Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — with Adams’ signing being universally attributed to the relationship he had developed with Garner when the coach was still at Georgia — to go along with their returnees, the questions started. How good could Auburn’s defensive line be? Garner hates those kinds of queries.
Talk is cheap, as the saying goes.
“There are some talented guys in this group, but we’ve got to raise our level of play,” he said. “We can’t talk about it. We’re going to be judged by what we put out there on the field.”
It’s a matter of commitment, Garner said. If they want to put their best foot forward on Saturdays this fall, his players need to put as much time into studying their playbook and practicing their techniques away from the field as they do when they’re around the coaching staff.
“It’s just like investing in the (stock) market,” he said. “To get a great return, you’ve got to be willing to make the right investment. If you’re investing a lot, you’re probably going to get some more on the back end. If you’re investing very little, you’re going to get very little.”
The biggest perpetrator to lackluster effort on the field and in the film room is none other than recruiting hype. To combat this mind-set, Garner said it requires building players up, breaking them down and then building them back up once more.
“Like I told them, ‘In recruiting, you’re never as good as we say you are, or ever as bad. It’s somewhere in between,'” he said. “And you know, people expect you to show out. ‘Potential’ is the worst adjective that they can use to describe you. At some point, it’s my responsibility to get it out, but you’ve got to be willing to put it out.”
Getting over their own positive press clippings — and knowing it means nothing once they enroll in classes — is the best thing that ever happened to Lawson, Adams and Daniel.
Garner wished a few of his other players would finally come to that realization.
“I’ve got a couple other ones in my room, that for some reason, they didn’t get derecruited, so they aren’t handling the ‘hard coaching’ part,” he said. “It’s a physical, very demanding position. And if you let me intimidate you, then we’ve got problems. If I intimidated him, what’s 89,000 going to do to him? I want to know today. I don’t want to find out on Saturdays.”
For a lesson in perspective, Garner said the Tigers’ defensive line can look to one of his former players, Geno Atkins. The Cincinnati Bengal is now one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL and preparing to sign a long-term contract extension that will make him a wealthy man.
But when he returned to Georgia to work with Garner following his rookie season, his old coach was amazed at Atkins’ lack of pretension.
“I’m like, ‘Geno, you bought a car yet?'” Garner recalled. “He’s like, ‘Naw Coach, I’m going to wait to until I get my income taxes in.’ He’s still driving the same Honda Accord. I’ve got some guys in my room that wouldn’t do that. They like talking about what they’re going to do — they haven’t done anything. Not anything.”
They have their chance to change that this fall, of course. And Garner, no doubt, will be the first one to sing their praises if they do.
He has no problem telling it like it is, after all.