Former Oklahoma signee trying to jump from JUCO to NFL

Former Oklahoma signee trying to jump from JUCO to NFL

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ourtney Gardner is hoping to beat the odds.

gardnerThe talented wide receiver signed with Oklahoma out of California’s Sierra College in 2012, but a combination of academic and legal troubles kept him from ever suiting up for the Sooners.

Now he’s trying to make the unlikely leap from junior college to the NFL.

Last week Gardner signed a free agent deal with Miami and joined the team for OTAs. He’s already made it farther than most, and now he has the next three months to show the Dolphins he belongs.

“It is about stepping up to the expectations and coming out here learning from the best, and getting better every day,” Gardner told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

His road to training camp was long and filled with potholes.

Following a standout career at Reno’s Hug High School, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Gardner was set to sign with Nevada in 2009, but academics got in the way.

Gardner landed at Sierra, and put up big numbers, including 61 receptions for 1,099 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore. He was named a junior college All-American in 2011, and became the subject of a fierce recruiting battle.

LSU was long thought to be the favorite, but Gardner committed to Arkansas in December. Two months later, he flipped on signing day and inked with the Sooners.

Once again, academics would force a change of plans. Unable to get qualified in time for the 2012 season, Gardner set his sights on enrolling this January. But by November, it was apparent that he wasn’t going to be eligible then, either.

Gardner’s two arrests since high school — one for possession of alcohol by a minor, and the other was for obstructing a police officer during a traffic stop — didn’t help matters. He and OU assistant Jay Norvell reached a mutual decision that playing for the Sooners just wasn’t in the cards.

He considered trying to latch on with another college team, but Gardner, who turns 23 in June, decided the NFL was his best option.

“I was older,” he said. “Physically and athletically I think I can play on the next level. I just need a chance to show my athletic ability.”

He went undrafted but several teams made free agent offers, and Gardner signed with San Diego hours after the draft was over.

But much like his career at Oklahoma, that opportunity ended before it ever began. He didn’t show up for rookie camp, and both parties agreed to move on so that Gardner could attend to “personal matters” back home.

Miami decided to give Gardner one more chance — possibly his last — and the Dolphins are keeping him on a very tight leash.

“They were strict [admitting] I have no leeway,” he said. “I’ve been in some trouble and I told them I’d try my best to stay out of trouble. Everything is behind me now.”

Last year Alonzo Lawrence, a former Alabama signee who detoured through Southern Miss before winding up at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, tried to make the JUCO-to-NFL jump.

A former NJCAA All-American safety, Lawrence signed a free agent deal with the Detroit Lions but was released in late June. He signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL last year and is now with the Toronto Argonauts.

Gardner is hoping to land one of five or six spots on the Dolphins 53-man roster or one of eight practice squad jobs. There’s a long list of receivers ahead of him, but with his talent, anything is possible.

“He’s a big guy. He catches the ball with his hands well,” Miami coach Joe Philbin said. “He is an intriguing prospect and obviously we have to get our hands around him and teach him our system as quickly as possible to see how much he can absorb and learn.”

Photo: Joe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald

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