JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Call it Rod Gardner's swan song with a familiar tune.
The Jacksonville native and Clemson senior receiver is home again. He can tell by the warm weather, the 70 family members and friends requesting Gator Bowl tickets, and the cell phone that constantly rings.
"This is what it's all about," Gardner said earlier this week. "You can't ask for nothing better than your last college game back in Jacksonville."
Maybe not, but Gardner certainly has extra motivation.
How about needing four catches to become the Tigers' all-time leading receiver? How about going against a cornerback with perhaps an even bigger mouth? How about improving a high position in the NFL draft?
Gardner will contend with those factors Monday against Virginia Tech. His catches are down - 80 in 1999 to 51 this season - but the decline can be attributed to Clemson running the ball more.
He needs 46 yards to reach 1,000 for the second straight season and already has two more touchdowns than in '99. Gardner's most impressive statistic: 18.7 yards per catch (up from 13.6 in '99).
Gardner has six games with per-catch averages better than 24 yards. Last year, he had one.
"Rod seems to make big plays when we need them," offensive coordinator Brad Scott said. "If that's not the definition of clutch, I'm not sure what is."
Once a quarterback and strong safety prospect, Gardner can break Terry Smith's career receptions mark of 162 set from 1990-93. Gardner wouldn't mind four easy hitches in the first quarter.
"I don't care what I've got to do, I'm going to get that record," he said. "If I have to take it out of Woody's hands and throw it to me and go chase it down, I'm going to get that record this game."
Eyeing Gardner will be Virginia Tech cornerback Ronyell Whitaker, the nephew of professional boxer Pernell Whitaker.
"Wherever he goes, I go," Whitaker said. "If he goes to get a hot dog, I'm going to be right there to put the mustard on."
Whitaker is notorious for collecting personal information from media guides about opposing receivers. He plans to study Gardner's bio and memorize nuggets to get under Gardner's skin.
"I've heard about him," Gardner said. "He's a big talker. Guess it should be fun."
Mothers and girlfriends are fair game to Whitaker, who anticipates covering Gardner 80 to 90 percent of the time. The 5-9, 193-pound corner made second-team All-Big East but hasn't faced many receivers like the 6-4, 215-pound Gardner.
"The push-off, that's his favorite route," Whitaker said. "Gardner tries to push you around, be real aggressive. That's not going to work against me."
Gardner doesn't hide the fact that he is physical. South Carolina fans won't forget his bump-and-run Hail Mary catch over Andre Goodman on Nov. 18, which led to the Tigers' winning field goal.
Just don't call his style pushing off.
"Man, that takes away from what I've accomplished," Gardner said. "I'm going to put myself in position to make the play regardless of who you are. If it takes me being physical with you the whole way down the field, that's what I'm going to do."
The big, physical receiver has become attractive to NFL scouts. Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects Gardner as going 12th in the first round.
Gardner is trying to stay focused on the Gator Bowl. But it's clear the NFL is also on his mind.
"Shoot, I can get higher than 12th," he said. "I can have a good game and good postseason and be in the top 10. Why can't I be the first receiver?"
Gardner said he has narrowed his choice of agents down to two, whom he declined to name. The NCAA does not restrict student-athletes from speaking with agents, as long as they don't accept benefits.
After the Gator Bowl, Gardner will participate at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and a Super Bowl skills challenge in Tampa, Fla. He plans to hold individual workouts for pro scouts and attend the February NFL combine in Indianapolis.
"I'm not sure if I'll run (a 40-yard time)," he said. "If I feel I can do it, I'll do it. I could lose a lot with a bad time."
Gardner's career has come full circle. As a high school senior in 1996, he sat in the cold rain and was shocked by Clemson's 41-0 Gator Bowl loss to Syracuse.
"By the end of the game, my girlfriend was asking, `Now which one of these schools are you going to again?"' Gardner said. "I said Clemson. She was like, `You think you've made the right choice?"'
Gardner's future indicates the answer is affirmative. He has come home again, if only for a short stay on his road to the NFL.
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