The Washington Post

Freshman passer keeps Stags rolling



Denzel Gardner was a high school freshman and barely that. He had not yet taken his first class at Dematha Catholic High. He hadn’t met many of his classmates. He had only recently been in the building for the first time.

He was dressed for the Stags’ opener Aug. 28, his first high school football game, and he wasn’t planning to play. But senior quarterbac­k Blake Kendall suffered a serious ankle injury on the first offensive series, and Gardner was the backup.

“I tried to move past [the nerves], but when I first got in, it struck me a little bit,” Gardner said.

He entered a huddle with teammates he had just met and called plays he had hardly practiced. And just like that, he had the keys to the offense at a national football powerhouse — one that is now 2-1 after Friday’s 42-6 win against Episcopal.

“We’re asking him to do an awful lot,” Coach Bill Mcgregor said. “He’s the quarterbac­k at Dematha High School.”

Mcgregor led the Stags from 1982 to 2011 and returned as the coach in 2019, so he knows what the words “quarterbac­k at DeMatha High School” mean. Never before, in his recollecti­on, had he said them about a quarterbac­k so early in his freshman year.

Two years ago, late in the season, Cam Edge became what Mcgregor said was Dematha’s first freshman starter. He shared time with then-senior Malakai Anthony, and over the course of the pandemic, he blossomed into a four-star quarterbac­k prospect and appeared ready to lead the Stags as a junior.

When Gardner said Friday, “I didn’t think I was going to play at all,” he meant this season — blocked by Edge and Kendall on the depth chart. But Edge transferre­d back home to Smyrna, Del., in June, moving Gardner up.

“I think it means [Mcgregor] has a lot of trust in me,” Gardner said. “I really do thank him for putting me in that situation. That means he trusted me a lot. I just stepped up to the plate.”

Gardner has been afforded the luxuries of most Dematha quarterbac­ks — talented running backs, a strong offensive line and an opportunis­tic defense. Brendon Wyatt and Jaden Bacon combined for 24 carries, 216 yards and three touchdowns rushing Friday, and the defense gave the Stags starting field position in plus territory on their first two possession­s, both touchdowns.

No. 10 Dematha didn’t require many passes from Gardner, but the Stags are making sure to rely on him to expedite the growth process. Gardner finished 8 for 15 for 101 yards and a touchdown.

“Everybody’s got to pick up their game a little bit. Everybody’s got to do a little bit more, a little bit extra, to help out,” Mcgregor said. “We’ve got to rally behind him. We’ve rallied behind him, and we’re just doing what we’ve got to do. It’s not magic. It’s football. We’ve got to pull together and be together.”

 ?? JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Dematha freshman Denzel Gardner was thrust into a starting role because of an injury this season.
JONATHAN NEWTON/THE WASHINGTON POST Dematha freshman Denzel Gardner was thrust into a starting role because of an injury this season.

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