TCPalm Super 11: No. 9 Fort Pierce Westwood DE/OLB James Gardner Jr.

Jon Santucci
Treasure Coast Newspapers

TCPalm is announcing its annual Super 11, the list of the top recruited senior football players on the Treasure Coast. TCPalm is counting down from No. 11 to No. 1, with two players announced per week. The No. 1 player will be revealed on Sunday, July 26.

FORT PIERCE — James Gardner Jr. still feels he has something to prove.

Considering all that the Fort Pierce Westwood defensive end accomplished in 2019 — recording 16 sacks, 25 tackles for loss and combining with current South Carolina linebacker Gilber Edmond as the area’s top passing rushing tandem — it’s difficult to imagine what else Gardner has left to accomplish.

“I have something to prove to myself, that I can be better than last year,” said Gardner, who was a first-team All-Area selection and second-team all-state pick. “I want to take us to states and win games in the playoffs.

“I can do better. Maybe we can go to the second round of the playoffs, because that hasn’t been done in a long time here.”

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Gardner, ranked No. 9 on the TCPalm Super 11, emerged as one of the area’s premier playmakers last fall.

When Panthers coach Jeff George Jr. arrived on campus midway through 2019 spring practices, he immediately moved Gardner from outside linebacker to end and it paid immediate dividends.

He recorded four sacks in the spring game, three in the Kickoff Classic and three more in the season opener against St. Lucie West Centennial. Despite losing to Centennial, Gardner earned TCPalm’s Defensive Game Ball for Week 1.

James Gardner Jr., Fort Pierce Westwood, defensive end/outside linebacker

The rest of the season was more of the same.

“James has the ability to do multiple things,” George said. “He can play the run, play the pass. He can rush the passer. He’s a really good leader on the field. I wish I had a 11 of him. James is an aggressive player. He’s the one that everyone feeds off of. He wants it more.

“This year is a big year for him. He knows that.”

He’s looking to build on his breakout 2019 this fall. He’s been studying film of his favorite NFL defensive linemen: Aaron Donald, Cameron Jordan and, of course, Westwood graduate Khalil Mack.

“I study their work ethic and try to add it to my game to get better,” Gardner said. “I’m strong, so I try to use more power than finesse. I do whatever I have to do to get to the ball.”

More of the Super 11

No. 11:Treasure Coast QB/ATH Turk Watkins

No. 10:St. Lucie West Centennial CB Henry Pickens

Gardner has one FCS offer, from Southeastern Louisiana. Westwood coaches were expecting the spring to help kick-start Gardner’s recruiting, but those practices were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is what it is,” Gardner said. “It was hard. I know a lot of schools said they were going to come and watch me and I wanted to prove something to them. But I know something is out there. My time will come. Most college coaches see me an undersized guy. I want them to see a guy who can battle with the best of them any day of the week.”

The Panthers coaching staff has been working to identify another end who can play across the formation from Gardner and hopefully keep teams from double- and triple-teaming him.

Regardless of who else lines up at end for Westwood, George is expecting Gardner to have another big season in 2020.

“He did some really good things off natural instinct, but he’ll have better technique,” George said. “He’ll be more technically sound. He’ll be better at doing the little things. I think he’ll be leaps and bounds better.”

Fort Pierce Westwood defensive end James Gardner Jr. chases St. Lucie West Centennial quarterback Blayne Watkins during the first game of the season on Aug. 22, 2019 at South County Regional Stadium.

James Gardner Jr.

Fort Pierce Westwood DE/OLB

TCPalm Super 11 rank: 9

Height, weight: 6-foot-2, 215 pounds

2019 stats/honors: 16 sacks, 25 tackles for loss, 1 interception, TCPalm first-team All-Area selection, FloridaHSFootball Class 6A all-state second team

Top offer: Southeastern Louisiana