Rodney Garner got a text Sunday afternoon and he started laughing as soon as he saw who sent it.
It was from Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend, who was sending him a message on behalf of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Garner wouldn’t share the exact contents of that message, but clearly it wasn’t something along the lines of “miss ya, pal. Can’t wait to see ya on Saturday.”
“They were just being a smart-[alecks],” Garner said in a telephone interview on Monday. “It was just a little sarcastic text. That’s the way they always are, same old stuff. They’re both a couple of smart-[alecks].”
Don’t misinterpret. Garner left on the best of terms not only with those two former co-workers but with the entire athletic program at the University of Georgia. After 15 years as the Bulldogs’ defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator – along with a good, long stint as assistant head coach – Garner heeded the call of his alma mater and returned home to Auburn last December to help rebuild its football program.
If you haven’t noticed, that project is going pretty well. The Tigers (9-1, 5-1 SEC) are ranked No. 7 in the BCS rankings and are favored to beat Georgia when the two teams meet at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.
Garner, the Tigers’ associate head coach and defensive line coach, took some time out of his busy schedule preparing for that matchup on Monday to talk getting ready to face the Bulldogs for the first time in 16 years.
Q: What are your emotions as you prepare to face a team with which you’re so familiar and know some many on a personal level?
A: “It’s not like I left under adverse circumstances. My stay at Georgia was great, it was awesome. I’m just very appreciative of having my family in that environment for 15 years, one that was very conducive to family. It’s a great program, a great university, a great city. I was blessed to work for two great head coaches in Coach (Jim) Donnan, who gave me the opportunity to come to Georgia, and for Coach (Mark) Richt, who gave me the opportunity to stay at Georgia. My experience there was just so positive. So for me, it’s special on both ends and I have a lot of love and respect for the program, the coaches and the players that are still there. I have nothing but fond memories.”
Q: Have you been able to keep up with the Bulldogs much?
A: “I pull for Georgia 11 games of the year. You work with people for so long and you have great relationships with them. And that’s what it’s really all about, relationships. So I follow them always on the scoreboard and stuff. But my wife (Kim), she follows them relentlessly. She keeps up with a lot of the parents and interacts with them and her and Katharyn (Richt) text each other, so she keeps me more in tune than anybody from that standpoint.” But I always pull for the guys except for this one week.”
Q: So what’s it like having to go against them now?
A: “It’s a competitive thing. I know for us to achieve what we have to achieve we have to go through Georgia. That’s what I tell my players. It’s not like I’ve got hatred or dislike for them. But for us to do what we want to do this season, it has to go through Georgia. We need that game. For our success, the Georgia game will always be important. Auburn relies so much on the state of Georgia for recruiting, and that game plays such a significant role in recruiting, so it’s just so important. For the same reason it’s important for Georgia.”
Q: What do you think of the job your former D-linemen are doing?
A: “Chris Wilson is a great coach. He’s doing an excellent job with those guys. They’ve embraced him and seem to have really bought into his teaching and philosophy. They definitely upgraded on position coaches. Chris is a great guy, a great coach, and they have a great defensive staff.”Like I’ve told everybody, you get all those guys drafted and have three returning starters, that’s a lot of new faces out there. You’re going to have to go through some growing pains. Then you add in all the injuries they’ve had to deal with, I think they’ve done a remarkable job.” I think Coach Richt has done a remarkable this season, but I think Coach Richt has done a remarkable job his whole career there. Look at his body of work. I mean, for anybody to coach in this league for this long and have the success he’s had on a consistent basis, it tells you he is a great coach. And he is an awesome guy to work for. Sometimes you don’t appreciate those things until you’re gone. Mark Richt is an awesome guy.”
Q: What’s it like working with Gus Malzahn?
A: “I wouldn’t have left if I didn’t think I was going into a similar situation. Coach Richt is such a family guy, and for a guy with six kids and a bunch of young girls, that was just so important. I wanted them to be in an environment that was conducive to family. And it’s that way here. My 16-year-old daughter gets to work game day here, she does recruiting and registration. That kind of stuff is important to me. My job is to win football games and help take care of everybody else’s kids. But I have a personal responsibility to take care of my own family, too, so that’s big for me. I have nothing but love for UGA. Kai, my 10-year-old, Coach [John] Eason and Mrs. Eason are her godparents. So all she cares about Saturday is she’s sitting with Ms. Vanessa on Saturday. That’s all she’s talking about. They’re 100 percent Auburn, but they’re excited about seeing everybody.”
Q: What’s your impression of Georgia’s offense in the wake of all those injuries?
A: “They look pretty good to me. Georgia always does a great job on offense. They’ve got a bunch of great coaches over there.I’m sitting here watching film right now from the Florida and App State games and I don’t know how gimpy Todd [Gurley] is but he looks pretty good to me. I don’t know what percent Todd is but obviously he’s an elite player. [Aaron] Murray’s an elite player. Any time you’ve got a trigger man who has the amount of experience that he has it always gives you a competitive advantage.” You have to play at the top of your game because that guy has played in a lot of games, he’s smart and he checks in and out of things to put them in the right situation. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us to try to slow them down.
Q: What’s your thoughts on Auburn’s new trigger man, Nick Marshall?
A: “Nick, I’m telling you, just watching him mature and grow, it’s just been a total transformation. I talked to his mom after our game on Saturday and I told her how much I’ve enjoyed watching him mature. He’s not even the same young man. It’s been really good. I tell Coach Ledford all the time, this kid has really changed. He has really accepted the leadership role of being a quarterback in the SEC. He embraced it. The kids love him. They believe in him. They’ve rallied around him. That’s what you have to have in a quarterback. Obviously he doesn’t have the experience of a Murray, but what he’s been able to do in the short time that he’s been here has been remarkable. You have to understand, he didn’t get on campus until July. So just him being able to do what he has in this amount of time is really remarkable. We’re eager to see how much more he’s going to be able to grow and where he’s going to be able to take this thing to.”