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Starter or not, Will Gardner has already proven his worth

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2015 Louisville football team takes the field for the first time on Sept. 5, the Cardinal defense will be squaring off against a quarterback in Auburn's Jeremy Johnson who has never been a full-time starter, but who also has enough hype behind his name to be considered by some experts as a darkhorse candidate to win the Heisman Trophy.

Louisville fans may have forgotten, but that exact same description could have been used to profile Cardinal quarterback Will Gardner exactly 12 months ago.

You remember Gardner, right? The guy who backed up Teddy Bridgewater for a year and then was expected to step into a starring role as the first signal caller of the second Bobby Petrino era? Things didn't exactly work out that way, but there also seems to be a strange phenomenon at play where Louisville fans have misremembered a number of substandard performances that never actually took place.

Gardner's biggest problem in 2014 was that his worst performance of the season was early and memorable. In UofL's 23-21 loss at Virginia on Sept. 13, Gardner misfired on 20 of his 34 passing attempts and was intercepted twice. The shoddy performance came at the worst possible time for the current QB1, as his backup (always the most popular man in town) had just given an electrifying debut performance the week before against Murray State. Reggie Bonnafon was younger than Gardner and he possessed a more exciting skill-set, a pair of factors that without question resulted in the memory of the Virginia game sticking out more than it would have otherwise.

Perception typically trumps reality in athletics, and does so more frequently in college football than any other major American sport. The reality of Will Gardner's sophomore season is that if you throw away the Virginia game, he completed 113 of his 187 attempts (better than 60 percent), tossed 10 touchdown passes, and was intercepted just once. Despite not playing at all in the first half, he nearly led the Cards to an upset win at Clemson, and then did more than enough to out UofL in a position to upset top-ranked Florida State two weeks later. He was playing with complete confidence and a better understanding of the Petrino offense when a third major knee injury in four years ended his season on Nov. 8.

Despite starting more games and throwing more passes than any of his challengers, Gardner's knee injury made him the forgotten man in an offseason quarterback battle that also includes Bonnafon, Kentucky game hero Kyle Bolin, and highly-touted true freshman Lamar Jackson. At least he had been a forgotten man until last weekend.

Though Louisville's fall camp is still in its infant stages, there has been little debate among those who made it out to the early open practices that Gardner was the sharpest of the men vying to be UofL's starting quarterback against Auburn. He is showing no signs of a limp, and appears to be every bit as mobile as he was this time last year.

"I'm a little bit surprised really of how sharp he's been and how well he's executed," Petrino said of Gardner during UofL's media day. "He's throwing the ball well. He's keeping his vision downfield. He's actually said that the knee feels better now than it ever did at any time after his first two injuries."

Even if he doesn't win the starting job, Gardner has already shown Louisville fans that he is a player whose character demands their respect. In fact, he showed that throughout last season when he remained an upbeat leader on the sidelines, both after he was supplanted by Bonnafon as UofL's starting quarterback, and after yet another devastating injury derailed what had been a very positive second half of his sophomore season.

"Honestly it gets easier and easier every time because you know what to expect and you've been through it before," Gardner said of the recovery process "It's all mental really. There are other things that are going on in the world that are 10 times worse than what I have. I'm blessed and thankful to be in the position I am today."

Whether he starts every game this season or never sees the field, UofL football fans should be thankful that Will Gardner will be wearing red and black.

This column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune