Instead of watching television after finishing his homework, Kael Gardner sometimes searches YouTube for videos of the best players in NFL history.
The Bald Eagle Area junior particularly enjoys watching linebackers James Harrison and Ray Lewis. He’s watched clips of legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene. They were all “crazy” on the field, and in Gardner’s eyes, that’s part of his job description as a linebacker for the Eagles.
He’s played with reckless abandon all season and drawn some interesting comparisons in the process.
“One guy that’s very good friends with me said he’s like Bobby Boucher out there,” BEA head coach Jesse Nagle said, referring to the main character in “The Waterboy” movie. “He’s nuts.”
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Gardner makes his presence felt Friday nights, but his all-out mentality is only one part of his success. The BEA linebacker does more than study Harrison, Lewis, Butkus and Greene on YouTube — he watches opponents’ film on Hudl once every night and regularly talks with his head coach about his observations. He stores that information and puts it to use in games to lead the Eagles defense. The result: 118 tackles (82 solo) and 17 tackles for loss in the team’s first nine games.
Gardner played outside linebacker last season since he was too small to play in the middle. But at the start of this year, Gardner told his coach he wanted to play inside and soon showed he was more than capable.
“I just try to play downhill at all times,” Gardner said. “I just try to play behind (the defensive line) and try to get gaps to shoot and just go for it.”
He also received a preseason challenge from his position coach to record 10 tackles in every game.
Joe Nagle, the Eagles linebackers coach and the head coach’s brother, achieved the feat his own junior season in 2000 at Bald Eagle Area. His pupil, Gardner, started the year with a bang — finishing with 13 tackles in the opener against Troy, 11 tackles against Philipsburg-Osceola and 15 tackles against Penns Valley before his streak came to an end with a nine-tackle effort against Chestnut Ridge.
His numbers are staggering — he’s averaging 13.1 tackles per game — even though he fell short of that preseason goal to reach double figures every week.
“He better get it next year,” Joe Nagle said.
Gardner watches the upcoming opponent during study halls at school in addition to his sessions at night. He looks for a guard’s positioning on the line in a certain situation to see if the lineman will pull. He takes note of how much weight a lineman is putting on his hand. And he pays attention to whether a team will run or pass out of specific formations.
His head coach can see how much time his players spend on Hudl, and no one puts in the time that Gardner does.
“He usually triples everybody,” Jesse Nagle said. “He logs about as many hours as the coaches do. He’s a kid that loves football. He’s a kid that wants to get better every day. You can tell that he holds kids accountable.”
Added Joe Nagle: “You don’t want to be out there questioning where the ball’s going. If you pretty much know where the ball’s going, you’re going to make the play. He shows that every week.”
Earlier this season, Gardner told his head coach he couldn’t stand losing and asked how he could make his teammates better. Nagle pointed to the linebacker’s dedication to film study, telling the junior to get others to match his preparation. He’s already shown what he can do on the field, but Nagle said Gardner is now slowly developing into a leader.
Gardner set the tone with a season-high 19 tackles in BEA’s biggest win of the season, an upset victory over Clearfield that snapped a four-game losing streak.
“It really made me feel like I was part of a team that wanted to get after it,” Gardner said.
Gardner followed the 19-tackle performance with 17 stops in last week’s loss to Jersey Shore. He has recorded at least 15 tackles in four games this season, routinely flying into the backfield and showing why “The Waterboy” comes to mind. Gardner breaks down all that film and checks in with his head coach throughout the week — he’s texted Nagle at 11:30 p.m. about opponents’ blocking schemes — so he can play like Bobby Boucher on Friday nights.
“There’s once or twice a game that he stuffs people for three-yard losses,” BEA’s head coach said. “Everybody thinks I’m blitzing him, and I’m not. He just reads that well.”
And every time he steps on the field, he’s ready to be a little “crazy” as he spearheads the Eagles’ defensive effort.
“I think to be a linebacker,” Gardner said, “you can’t care. You can’t think, ‘Oh, I’m going to get hurt on this play.’ That’s when you do get hurt or that’s when you give up a big play. You just got to lay the hit.”