It took Temple Owls fans a little more than two months this past college football season to figure out what everyone in the Swannanoa Valley already knew - Jager Gardner breaks records.
In fact, the entire country got a glimpse of Gardner’s blazing speed and otherworldly athletic ability as he streaked through the defense of Southern Methodist University on his way to a 94-yard touchdown. It broke a 40-year-old Temple record.
Gardner’s record-breaking performance against a conference opponent, televised on ESPN2, was the highlight of a solid freshman season for the Swannanoa Valley native, who finished the season with 184 rushing yards on 32 carries and a touchdown.
Gardner appeared in 11 games for the Owls in 2015 and was the team’s primary kick returner, averaging 22.4 yards per return. His longest return of the season was 54 yards against the University of South Florida.
On the heels of a high school football career that saw the former ,
Gardner - an Owen High School standout who became Western North Carolina’s leading rusher - found himself in uncharted territory when he arrived in Philadelphia.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “I realized quick I wasn’t in high school anymore and these are grown men out here that play football just like I do. It’s an entirely different level.”
Speed at every position on the collegiate level was the first thing that Gardner noticed as he prepared for his freshman season.
“There are defensive linemen that have the ability to run just about as fast as a running back,” he said.
The preparation that goes into the college game was also an adjustment for Gardner, who learned quickly that studying the sport would be crucial to finding success on the field. Realizing the ultra-competitive nature of the sport, Gardner said he knew he would have to “buckle down and not take any days off.”
After limited action in the Owls’ first three games, Gardner earned the opportunity to handle the team’s kick return responsibilities against East Carolina University.
“I asked coach if I could have that job and he said ‘go get it,’” Gardner said. “During practice when we had return drills, I was working on making every catch and showing the team that I had the ability to be the kick returner.”
Two weeks later, in Dallas, Gardner earned his first collegiate start when injuries left the Owls thin at the running back position. His number was called on Temple’s first play from scrimmage, resulting in a gain of 1 yard. But on the next play Gardner made his presence known.
“I saw my guard come down and pinch that defensive tackle inside, so he couldn’t get to the outside,” he said. “I saw the whole defense kind of shift to one side and I knew I had a chance to make a big run. So I ran with it.”
Gardner’s 94-yard gallop to the end zone broke a record set in 1975 by Temple running back Kevin Grady. The run was also reminiscent of many of the Swannanoa Valley native’s spectacular runs at Owen’s Warhorse Stadium.
“I don’t know if it was an Owen flashback, but it was a blessing from God,” he said. “It gave me a real boost of confidence and showed me that I can really play at this level.”
Looking forward to his sophomore season Gardner is hoping to bulk up to around 230 pounds in an effort to put his body in the kind of shape that can withstand the physical punishment that comes along with the position. He is also hoping to earn himself more playing time.
“I just have to work as though I’m a starter,” he said. “I won’t take any days off.”
Gardner said adjusting to living in the nation’s fourth largest city was tough at first, but football and keeping up with his former team helped. He was impressed by the performance of his former teammate at Owen High, Sidney Gibbs.
“He looks like he has a great future ahead of him,” Gardner said. “I knew what a great work ethic he had and how much work he puts into the off-season. He’s a special player.”
Gardner returned to his former school to visit friends and faculty before returning to Temple last Sunday.
“It feels great to be back where everybody loves you and cares about you,” he said. “Now it’s time to get back to work.”