By Paul Hines
MT. VERNON — It's rare for a starting running back to move to wide receiver from one season to the next.
It's an even rarer switch when that running back led a team in rushing yards the previous season.
That's the scenario that involved Doug Gardner and his move from running back to wide receiver this summer for the Mt. Vernon football team. The change has paid off for the Rams after four games. Mt. Vernon has developed a deep group of running backs this season and filled a void at wide out.
“To be the starting fullback for all nine games and lead us in rushing and then go change positions … it does say a lot about his commitment to the team,” Mt. Vernon football coach Jared Shaner said.
A year ago Gardner led the Rams with nearly 700 yards on the ground. The Rams entered the season with a big group of running backs, which Gardner was initially a part of. They were set to start the season with a small group at wide receiver, including Jacobee Marshall who would miss the opening two games.
“I asked (Shaner) could I switch so I could help the team out in week one, and he just put me there,” Gardner said.
Discussion of a move from running back to wide out started during the summer with Gardner approaching assistant coach Jerod Kessler. From there the talk involved Shaner as well.
“He said something to coach Kessler, initially half jokingly and half not, and then it just got to the point in the summer where we thought that's the best thing for our team,” Shaner said.
The move meant Gardner had to learn how to block, release from the line of scrimmage and run crisp routes. It was a struggle at first learning the new position.
“Learning the assignments, like who you block, how to line up. At first I had difficulty coming off the ball. It was just different,” Gardner said.
As the weeks went by, Gardner grew more accustom and comfortable with his new role on the team. He also began to develop a rhythm with first-year quarterback Dylan Reeves. The two have connected on a pair of touchdowns. The longest score was a 37-yard strike to seal the victory at Mascoutah. His longest catch of the season went for 43 yards at Rochester. Gardner also has the size and versatility to be a possession-style receiver, grabbing passes for short gains that get the Rams first downs.
“He can go out and catch a ball, even if you're on him,” Shaner said. “He can be physical and catch a ball. He has just enough speed where he can also, if you're being lazy on defense or if you bite up on something, he can run by you enough to get himself open.”
Gardner leads the team with 16 catches for 235 yards after four games. He and the rest of the Rams are 3-1 and host Marion on Friday.