STORRS - Just two weeks ago, UConn football coach Randy Edsall wasn‚Äôt sure how confident he was in T.J. Gardner‚Äôs ability to contribute to the Huskies.
The coach said he thought the redshirt freshman from Windsor was lackadaisical at times and described him as an enigma.
All of a sudden, however, Edsall‚Äôs opinion shifted.
‚ÄúProbably a week ago, a week-and-half ago, all of a sudden you saw a different guy,‚ÄĚ Edsall said Thursday. ‚ÄúYou see a guy playing faster, doing the things that you thought when you recruited him he was going to be able to do.‚ÄĚ
Gardner says it was a possible decline in playing time that motivated him to turn things around so quickly.
‚ÄúKnowing my assignments definitely allows you to play better but I actually ended up losing some reps so I had to work twice as hard to get those back. That‚Äôs what really drove me to start playing better,‚ÄĚ Gardner said.
The Huskies went through a light workout Thursday and have just one more spring practice to go, that being the annual Blue White Game Saturday at Pratt & Whitney Stadium. It will be the first chance for Gardner to play at the East Hartford facility.
Gardner has been mostly playing with the Huskies‚Äô second-team defense this spring, but was for a moment even in danger of losing that spot.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know what happened. Maybe he‚Ä¶sometimes with young people it takes them a little bit longer to pick things up,‚ÄĚ Edsall said. ‚ÄúBut I know coach (Jon) Wholley has talked to him, I‚Äôve talked to him. Sometimes it takes a little longer for guys to hit their strides.‚ÄĚ
The 6-foot-2, 236-pound Gardner originally committed to Boston College before changing his mind and opting to join Edsall as he returned to Storrs.
‚ÄúIt was definitely difficult coming in, my first year in college ball, a new system, new terminology. But it‚Äôs starting to come around now,‚ÄĚ Gardner said.
It‚Äôs not clear what specific role Gardner will have when the season begins in fourth months, but he says that‚Äôs not his focus right now.
‚ÄúIt doesn‚Äôt really matter for me. If it‚Äôs starting, great. If it‚Äôs a backup coming in when they need me, great. Whatever I can do to help the team,‚ÄĚ Gardner said.
The Huskies have revamped their linebacking corps this offseason after losing five different players who were starters at one point in their careers: Vontae Diggs, Junior Joseph, Chris Britton, Cam Stapleton, and E.J. Levenber-ry.
Edsall said he‚Äôs been pleased with the development of his current group, in-cluding Eddie Hahn, Santana Sterling, Rha-kim Wiliams and Gardner.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôve played well. Jon‚Äôs done a good job with them,‚ÄĚ Edsall said of Wholley, a former player at UConn. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre playing with confidence. They‚Äôre not worried about making a mistake.‚ÄĚ
Gardner is the latest in a rather long line of Windsor High products to play for the Huskies, including teammate Tyler Coyle.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs pretty cool. I‚Äôve played with Tyler since we were 7 years old. It‚Äôs great to work your way up through high school and then the college level with one of your longtime friends,‚ÄĚ Gardner said.
Dixon on upswing
Another former Central Connecticut Conference standout that has caught the coaches‚Äô eyes lately is wide receiver Keyion Dixon.
The sophomore from Glastonbury recently moved up to a starting position because of the injury to Hergy Mayala, but was showing progress even before Mayala went down.
‚ÄúAnother young guy that I think has matured, gets it and understands that there‚Äôs high expectations for everybody,‚ÄĚ Edsall said. ‚ÄúAnd he has to work to meet those expectations we have for him as a player, as a student and as a person. And I see him grasping those concepts.‚ÄĚ
Dixon was third on the team last season with 33 receptions, amassing 360 yards on those catches.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Dixon says he‚Äôs bigger and stronger than he was last season as a redshirt freshman, and would love to see more playing time.
But on a team with a number of experienced and talented wideouts, there is sure to be stiff competition. It‚Äôs not exactly cut-throat, however, Dixon insists. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre a tight-knit community. We‚Äôre always hanging out outside of the facility, eating and doing everything,‚ÄĚ Dixon said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs never ‚ÄėI‚Äôm here to take your job.‚Äô It‚Äôs like ‚ÄėLet me help you to get where you need to be.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ