Ellijah Gardiner wasn’t supposed to be an Ohio State Buckeye, Tyjon Lindsey was. Lindsey, a 4-star speedster out of Las Vegas, committed to Ohio State in August, but waited until January to decommit and head to Nebraska. This left the Buckeye football program scrambling for another wide receiver to fill out their class.
Urban Meyer’s staff went through (virtual) stacks of tapes looking for someone to fill Lindsey’s vacated spot. They landed upon Ellijah Gardiner, who was committed to Missouri at the time.
“What happens is you lose a couple guys to the NFL Draft, maybe have a decommitment, maybe have a guy that’s going to transfer, that’s got some stuff going on and you put the APB out,” Meyer explained on signing day. “And we have a recruiting staff that keeps a file of players available for us, because you can’t watch 60 receivers until all of a sudden something — we’re getting ready to play bowl games and all this, boom, we start hearing there is a transition maybe to the NFL. And we have a staff put together things and they said, okay, here’s the top 10 guys. We go evaluate them. I get on a plane, we go see them and that’s what happens, and it’s fast.”
Gardiner (6-4 200) is from Kemp, Texas, which is about 45 minutes southeast of Dallas, and about 15 minutes northwest of Gun Barrel City. Kemp has a population of around 1,200, so it’s easy to see why Gardiner may have been a bit under the radar.
A 3-star prospect, Gardiner was rated the No. 115 receiver in the nation per the 247Sports Composite.
So Meyer made the trip out to Kemp and the staff liked him even more after meeting him.
“That’s a guy that after I really studied him and our staff really studied him and got to meet him and spend time with him, look what he’s going to be like, that’s a project type body, but big and fast,” Meyer said. “If you miss on a player, make sure you miss fast and miss big, and they usually turn into something. But once you get to know him and his family and find out he’s a tough guy, very impressed with him.”
What to Like
As Meyer said, Gardiner is big and fast, routinely being hand-timed in the high 4.3s/low 4.4s as a senior. He was also a multi-sport athlete, earning All-District honors as a wide receiver, Honorable Mention East Texas Dream Team as a basketball player, and he also finished sixth in the state in the triple jump.
Gardiner has only been playing wide receiver for two years, which is another reason he wasn’t more well known. He also played in a triple-option offense, but spent time all over the field, including quarterback and cornerback. Whatever his team needed from him, he would do.
“He’s only been playing wide receiver for really two years,” Kemp head coach Brandon Hankins told the Columbia Tribune last December. “He’s played corner for us this year. We’ve put him in the slot or in the jet sweep. We put him out wide, of course. He played some defensive end for us. We get in the playoff game, and our starting quarterback goes down, and he goes in at quarterback and rushes for 200 and throws for 220. He’s just a very intelligent football player and a very good football player at that.”
Gardiner is a long, tall receiver who runs track, but that doesn’t mean he lacks confined-space elusiveness.
He may be young at receiver, but he’s a natural athlete who puts his instincts and hand-eye coordination to use constantly.
There is going to be a learning curve because not only is Gardiner relatively new to the position, what he’s been taught about wide receiver has come from a triple-option perspective. The framework is there, however, because he has the speed to get deep and the ability to catch the ball. Even in a triple-option offense, he still hauled in about 800 receiving yards as a senior.
He isn’t just a deep threat because he was used all over the field — in the slot, out wide, as a pitch man at tailback, quarterback, wherever. He can also do something with the football on screens. Below is a screen pass to Binjimen Victor from Ohio State’s spring game followed by a screen pass to Gardiner. There is a similarity that looks intriguing.
Coming from a triple-option offense, he may already be one step ahead of many receivers in his ability to sustain blocks. Being a bigger receiver, he is able to overpower smaller defensive backs. In the first clip below, you’ll see Gardiner show up around the 10-yard line, which is 30 yards away from where the play started. The second play has Gardiner at the bottom of the screen. He drives his man 15 yards down the field on a simple run play.
As Urban Meyer said, if you’re going to miss, miss big and fast. Gardiner is a project in that he simply hasn’t had much time as a wide receiver, and what time he has had has not really prepared him for the offense he will see in college. The tools are there, as is the intelligence and willingness to learn.
All Gardiner has done is simply whatever he has been asked to do, and he has done that very well. Why would that stop now that he is at Ohio State? Sure, everything becomes more difficult at OSU. The odds aren’t great for anybody. But athleticism and willingness to work can overcome a lot of disadvantages.
Any time you sign a 6-foot-4, 200-pound wide receiver who runs a 4.4, you have to be pretty excited. Ellijah Gardiner might be raw, but that also means he’s still very teachable because he has no long-term bad habits. The potential is there, but players with more potential have come and gone from Ohio State without ever seeing the field — including 6-foot-4 wide receivers who run 4.4s.
I fully expect Gardiner to redshirt this season in order to learn his position better. With the number of receivers already on the roster, the Buckeyes can afford to bring him along slowly. That’s not to say they are going to take it easy on him. They won’t. But they also won’t have to force him onto the field in 2017 to fill a need.
That doesn’t mean he won’t develop rapidly this summer under Mickey Marotti, or have an outstanding fall camp and refuse to be redshirted due to his stellar play, just that it isn’t expected.
Eventually, however, the measurables will need to respond with production.
Based on his high school career, it would be a disappointment if he doesn’t eventually contribute significantly.
The Bottom Line
There is an apparent legal obligation to mention how under-the-radar Ellijah Gardiner was whenever he is talked about, as well as how little is expected of him right away. That’s the kind of talk that can motivate a player to prove everyone wrong. And while people can question plenty about Gardiner, motivation has never been a concern.
If you believe the rankings, there were 114 receivers better than him in America last year. There were 115 players in Texas alone better than he was.
Players ranked ahead of him signed letters of intent with Bowling Green, SMU, New Mexico State, Tulsa, San Diego State, and Texas State.
That should be all the proof that Gardiner needs to know that what he is doing is working, and as long as he continues with that same attitude, the positive results should follow.