Gardner sparks PSU defense
Penn State cornerback Rich Gardner is brash, he is mouthy, he is loud.
He loves to run around, bouncing off teammates and upending anything that is not bolted to the floor … and that’s just at the team hotel the night before a game. Imagine how he revved-up Gardner can be on the field.
“Rich is a rambunctious kid,” sophomore cornerback Alan Zemaitis said. “He’s older than me, but sometimes, I feel like I’m an old man compared to him. He’s got so much life in him.
“When I get focused, I’m more quiet. When he gets focused, he jumps all over the place.”
Gardner puts that energy to good use. A senior, he came to Penn State as a walk-on and has blossomed into a top-notch corner. He also stokes the team’s emotional fire.
“That’s Rich’s personality,” safety Calvin Lowry said. “Rich likes to be the person who gets the team hyped. When we go out on the field, he’s making noise, high-fiving everybody and giving everybody chest bumps. After we stretch, he jumps on top of the pile.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Gardner also is Penn State’s king of trash talking. He’ll yap at anyone not wearing blue and white, and has found a willing disciple in defensive tackle Ed Johnson.
“When I leave here, I’ll have to pass on my trash-talking skills to him,” Gardner said. “How do I do itâ¢ I teach Trash Talking 101. It’s a class. It meets every day for 24 hours.”
Gardner started a dozen games last year, and became just the fifth Nittany Lions defender to run back two interceptions for touchdowns in a season.
Against Nebraska, he returned an interception 42 yards for a score and also made a career-best eight tackles. Opposing offensive coordinators got the message. So far this year, teams have consistently gone away from Gardner’s side of the field.
“It’s a little bit frustrating,” he said. “I started noticing it in the first game, and I was kind of confused by it. But then I realized AZ (Zemaitis) is a new starter and teams want to test him.”
If so, then Zemaitis is earning a passing grade. He leads the Big Ten with 10 passes defended and has picked off two passes. Three of Penn State’s top five tacklers are defensive backs.
Zemaitis ranks second with 27 stops. Safeties Chris Harrell and Yaacov Yisrael have 23 apiece. Gardner has 10 tackles and two pass break-ups. When a ball does come his way, he rarely is beaten.
“Rich’s got a reputation where guys are not going to throw to him,” Zemaitis said. “He could be hostile, like, ‘I’m not getting my stats like I should,’ but he ain’t like that. He just wants to win and he is so happy when somebody else makes a play. “When I make a play, he’ll be the first one jumping in my face. He gets so crazy that I can’t help but let that energy pour onto me.”
Last week against Kent State, Zemaitis grabbed a pass near midfield and sprinted down the sideline. As he got inside the 20-yard line, Zemaitis was hit by an offensive lineman and the ball popped loose. Kent State got it back.
“As soon as we went on the sideline after that series, the first thing I did was start laughing at (Zemaitis),” Gardner said. “That’s just a young mistake, and I know he’ll learn from it. That’s why I came over joking at him. I know it won’t happen again.
“We feel comfortable with each other. If one of us makes mistakes, we can laugh and know it won’t hurt that person’s feelings or crush his confidence.”
Gardner and Zemaitis became fast friends — and co-conspirators, of sorts. Their capers begin when the Lions board a bus or a plane to get to the team hotel the night before a game. A steady stream of Snoop Dogg, Fifty Cent, Jay-Z tunes blares from a CD player perched on Gardner’s seat. No need to ask who acts as deejay.
“That’s me,” Gardner said. “I tell everybody to just vibe off what I’m playing.”
At the hotel, Garder and Zemaitis are every maid’s worst nightmare.
“We don’t trash our hotel like we’re rock stars,” Gardner said with a laugh. “But .. . we do kind of flip the mattress a little bit, you know, and kind of get the room to where we’re comfortable.
“We don’t make our beds every day at home, so we like to go to the hotel and throw the sheets off those mattresses. We throw things around to make it look like we’re at home. That’s how we get hyped for the game.”