Jager Gardner was the only Owen football player with a helmet sticker on Thursday.
The reason is the 6-foot-3, 196-pound junior and his maroon headgear have been making the rounds at summer camps in recent months, including stops at North Carolina and N.C. State.
Gardner is bound to differentiate himself in other ways very soon.
He has been tabbed the Western Highlands Conference’s preseason player of the year by league coaches after rushing for 1,552 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore. Gardner only had about seven full games in the Warhorses’ backfield due to a position change from receiver and health issues.
“I think it’s going to be a really good year for us,” Gardner said.
“Our line is looking like it never has before. I’m just really excited to be behind them, and I think they can take me a long way.”
In a run-heavy offense, senior Cade Fox is the fullback for Gardner as well as a linebacker.
“I think we’re going to have a pretty solid team,” Fox said.
“We just want to make the playoffs and go as far as we can.”
Owen was picked to finish third in the preseason WHC coaches poll conducted for the N.C. Prep Football News Yearbook behind Hendersonville (first) and Madison (second).
The Warhorses return 11 starters (seven offense, four defense) from last year’s 6-7 team. But as has been the case in recent years, Buncombe County’s smallest school will be low on overall numbers.
Longtime coach Kenny Ford said he expects to have 27 or 28 players for the team’s season opener Aug. 23 at Enka.
Owen’s offensive line includes three returning seniors — Quentin Carver, Grant Dickerson and Taylor Earley. Senior Adam Tomberlin and juniors Mason Eades, Seth Penley, Grant Polk are also expected to be key linemen.
Sam Drummond was thrown into the fire at quarterback last season. The junior responded by passing for 538 yards and six touchdowns with 11 interceptions in 10 starts.
“We’ve got a lot of returning players and a conference championship is one of our goals,” Carver said.
“It’s been seven years since Owen has won one and we want to be that team.”
Ford said that junior Zee Johnston will provide depth at running back and be utilized as a receiver, too.
The majority of Owen’s roster will have to play ironman football (offense and defense). Fox and junior Austin Bennett are two of the linebackers who will be counted on for their defensive leadership.
“We’re thin in a whole lot of places,” Ford said.
“We’re going to be able to put a solid 11 out there. But you turn around (from offense to defense) and it might be the same 11. We’re running more so than usual. This group is going to have to be in shape.”
In 27 seasons, Ford has won 209 games, which is the most by any active Buncombe County coach.
Owen is expected to only have about eight seniors on its roster. Ford said that is one of the reasons he has put any thoughts of retirement on hold.