In fact, during his 13 seasons as an assistant at Georgia, he’s worked for two head coaches and five defensive coordinators, so adjustments are old hat at this point.
Still, there’s no doubt this spring has a much different feel than most of Garner’s previous seasons at Georgia. He’s the lone holdover from last year’s defensive staff, and he’s working furiously to learn Todd Grantham’s new 3-4 scheme in time to teach it to his players, while at the same time taking on a bigger role as defensive line coach.
“Football is football, but it’s the scheme,” said Garner, whose tenure at Georgia predates head coach Mark Richt by three years. “It’s a much different scheme than what we did. The terminology is completely different, and it’s a lot to grasp.”
Since Richt came on board in 2001, Garner has coached Georgia’s defensive tackles, but that job has changed quite a bit since Grantham came on board as the team’s new defensive coordinator.
In the 3-4 defense – which employs three down linemen and four linebackers – Garner’s coaching responsibilities have expanded from the two tackles he used to be responsible for to now include the entire line and, on many occasions, the rush linebackers, too.
“His responsibility has really grown,” Richt said. “When we do pass skeleton, Coach Grantham will still be there, but Rodney is handling the pass rush. So the outside linebackers who are working on their rush skills, Coach Garner is now teaching pass rush from inside and out. His responsibility has grown, but he’s excited about it.”
Although the task is immense, Garner said the entire defense has remained enthusiastic about the undertaking. It’s all new – from the terminology to the execution – but while the players still aren’t exactly sure what to do, they’re at least excited about doing it.
“I think they’ll be even more excited once they get more comfortable and can turn it loose and play full speed,” Garner said. “When you’re thinking and not sure where you’re going, it’s hard to just turn it loose. But I think they’re excited about the scheme.”
Before the players can play full speed, however, Garner needs to be able to teach the scheme -- which means he needs to be well ahead of where his players are in the playbook.
Since Grantham was hired in January, Garner has met with him nearly every day to go over film and study the scheme. Then he meets with his players or heads to the practice field where he passes along information he may have just learned a few hours earlier.
“Learning something new is always going to take time, so you have to communicate with one another,” defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson said. “I think they’re doing a real good job communicating. We meet every day and go over what we’re supposed to do.”
So far, the results on the practice field have been mixed.
On the plus side, the pace has been fast – both in terms of what is being installed and how quickly the players are implementing it.
“We’re putting a lot in at a time,” Garner said. “We’re trying to learn it and get it and then get it all to our kids. Coach Grantham is going full speed trying to get everything in so we can get good at.”
Georgia’s offensive coaches are busy studying the 3-4 looks, too, however, and Garner said his counterparts on the other side of the ball are taking it easy on the defense just because the players are still just part the way up the learning curve.
“They’re doing all these motions and shifts and all that stuff,” Garner said. “They’re not doing us any favors, and I think they’ve handled it well. You have to watch the film, and I’m sure there’s some good things on it and bad things on it.”
That’s to be expected, Garner said. The important thing is that progress is being made.
After all, Garner has been through these types of adjustments before, and he knows how the process works.
That experience is the one thing that has made this particular transition a bit easier for everyone. With two other new coaches trying to master the new defense, too, Garner’s approach has allowed him to blend in with the new staff virtually seamlessly, Grantham said.
“Rodney’s meshed very well,” Grantham said. “He’s a conscientious guy. He’s worked hard to understand what we want to get taught. I think he works his guys extremely hard in practice, and he’s done a good job so far. I’ve been pleased with the progress.”