August 7, 2017 10:58:07 AM
Editor's Note: The Dispatch continues its annual look at some of the area's top players. These features will run daily through the start of the prep football regular season Aug. 17 and 18.
STARKVILLE -- A.J. Brown and Raphael Leonard would help the Starkville High School football team rank high on a recent list of the state's top wide receivers.
Senior Cameron Gardner wants to be added to that list.
A young group of receivers will look to Gardner for leadership when Starkville begins its first season under new head coach Chris Jones.
"We have a chance to have the best group of receivers in the state," Gardner said. "The challenge is they are young. That is why it is really up to me as a senior to be a leader. It's all about learning technique and route running. It's a big adjustment from junior high ball.
"However, we have some really great players. It's a good group."
A three-star prospect (per 247Sports, a national recruiting website that focuses primarily on college football and men's college basketball), the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Gardner is rated as the state's 24th-best prospect. He gave a verbal commitment to Mississippi State in March. He tweeted his official offer sheet Aug. 1.
"It's a dream come true," Gardner said. "My family is getting older, so it's a chance for them to come right up the road to see their son and grandson. That's important to me. I like what is going on with the Mississippi State program. It's a good fit for me. I am excited about the opportunity."
Jones is excited about Gardner's senior season.
"Quite the leader," Jones said. "He goes hard in everything that he does. Sometimes, when you get that college offer, some might take a step back. Instead, Cameron has really turned it up. He wants to show everybody what Mississippi State will be getting. We have a lot of depth at wide receiver. He will be leading a good group."
Gardner looks to lead that group to the playoffs. A year ago, Starkville finished 7-4 but placed fifth in Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) Class 6A, Region 2 play and didn't qualify.
"That is one of the most disappointing things I have ever experienced," Gardner said. "Normally, the playoffs are not a problem and the goal is a championship. This year, we have been breaking down everything in practice on 'Playoffs.' That has been the biggest motivation, because we don't want to feel like that again."
Gardner had 21 receptions for 213 yards and three touchdowns last season. This year, the numbers most likely will go up if the playbook is any indication.
"We are going to throw the ball a lot more, so I like the new coach already," Gardner said jokingly. "Seriously, Coach Jones is great. He is young and energetic. He gets out there and actually practices with us. You can tell why his teams in the past have liked playing for him."
With his college destination determined, Gardner spent most the summer working on individual dreams and participating with the team at several 7-on-7 camps.
"With a new coach in place, we did a lot of 7-on-7s," Gardner said. "State. Southern (Mississippi), Ole Miss, (East Mississippi Community College), name it and we were there. The biggest thing for me has been technique and footwork. I have also been working on my speed. Speed is something you can always work on. It will come in handy here and on the next level."
With a lot of unproven components to this year's team, Gardner feels like the doubters will be lined up. With a state championship pedigree this decade, the bull's eye is always there, regardless of how good or bad the Yellow Jackets are playing.
"Proving the doubters wrong," Gardner said. "That's the motto for the upcoming season. A lot of people will take us lightly based on last season. This is a new team with a new attitude. After missing the playoffs last season, the new season couldn't get here quick enough."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
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