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GWINNETT GRADS: Norcross' Garcia shines on Florida Gators' line

Florida offensive linesman Max Garcia (76) celebrates after the Gators beat Tennessee on Sept. 21 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. (Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

Florida offensive linesman Max Garcia (76) celebrates after the Gators beat Tennessee on Sept. 21 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. (Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

Though Max Garcia knew the transition year was coming, it didn’t make enduring it any more enjoyable.

Instead of joining his Florida Gator football teammates last season, the Norcross grad watched from the sidelines during his NCAA-mandated year off because of his transfer from Maryland.

“It was really tough at first,” Garcia said of the year away from games. “It didn’t hit me really until the first game when the team suited up and I was in a T-shirt and shorts on the sideline. … It was hard, but I just focused on being a good teammate and serving my teammates by giving them the best look I could every week (with the scout team).”

Garcia’s work last year didn’t go unnoticed.

He was named the scout team’s player of the week three times prior to games with Bowling Green, LSU and Florida State, making an impression on the Gator coaches that continued into this spring. The payoff came this season when Garcia moved into the starting right guard position.

The junior has played well all season, displaying the talent he showed during his sophomore season at Maryland — he started all 12 games at left tackle for the Terrapins in 2011.

“I don’t take anything for granted, no matter how big or small,” Garcia said. “Everything I’m given is a blessing. … Coming to Florida, I knew Coach (Will) Muschamp needed some linemen, so I knew I was needed and wanted. At the same time, I had to come in and show the coaches what I was about. The way I played last fall and in the spring, I feel like I earned my spot.”

The results back that up.

Garcia had a strong game in the SEC opener vs. Tennessee, then earned Florida’s offensive player of the game award for last week’s effort against Kentucky. It’s rare that that honor goes to a lineman.

“(Garcia) just graded out high. He’s blocking his guy. Missed zero assignments,” Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease told Gainesville.com. “We had no protection issues with him. I’ve seen him finishing on guys. Guys are down on the ground. He’s downfield on runs. He’s very consistent, this guy is, at making plays.”

Garcia’s stellar play has come from a new position, moving inside from the tackle spot he manned at both Norcross and Maryland. He’s also changed considerably with his build, playing these days at 6-foot-4, 311 pounds. That’s up from a 285-pound playing weight at Maryland.

“I’m a lot more physical, a lot stronger than I was at Maryland,” Garcia said.

When he decided to transfer from Maryland, Garcia didn’t have any idea about his next destination. He didn’t know Florida, or what other schools, were interested as he approached a second round of the recruiting process.

He just knew something wasn’t right at Maryland, so he announced his intent to transfer. A number of top colleges recruited Garcia hard and he pared the list down to Florida, Ole Miss, Georgia, USC and Wisconsin before signing with the Gators.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time at Florida, it was the best decision for me,” Garcia said. “The combination of academics, social life and athletics, those three things weren’t what I was looking for at Maryland. I was looking for a change. Something was telling me to change the scenery and try something else out. I had no idea I’d have this opportunity at Florida.

“This time (with recruiting) I knew exactly what I was looking for. I knew what I wanted and I knew what type of environment I wanted to be in.”

The location was nice — he returns home much more frequently from Florida than he did from Maryland — and the school has worked out well academically, too. After last fall, Garcia was one of two Gator athletes to receive the prestigious Sophia Witherspoon Award for Overall Excellence, given each semester to two Gator athletes “who exemplify the positive attitude and strong work ethic in the classroom that they display on the playing field.”

Life on the football field is pretty good, too, both individually and for his team. Despite a non-conference loss to Miami, Florida is 3-1 and 2-0 in the SEC, much better already than the 2-10 season Garcia endured as a Maryland sophomore. The Gators host Arkansas tonight at 7 on ESPN2.

“Our first goal is definitely to make it to Atlanta (for the SEC Championship Game),” Garcia said. “Even with the loss to Miami, all our goals are still in place, what we want to do as a team. We control our own destiny.”

FOOTBALL

Quick hits

South Gwinnett’s Jonathan Krause caught four passes for 108 yards in Vanderbilt’s 52-24 win over UAB last weekend. … Norcross’ Geremy Davis had five catches for 102 yards, but his Connecticut team lost to Buffalo 41-12. … Collins Hill grad Taylor Heinicke had another big game for Old Dominion, completing 28 of 33 passes for 365 yards and a touchdown in a 66-10 win over Albany last Saturday. He also ran six times for 30 yards and another score.

Buford grad Alex Ross amassed 382 total yards and four TDs in Coastal Carolina’s 53-28 victory over Elon. … Mercer defeated Drake behind Mill Creek grad John Russ, who threw for 172 yards and a TD and rushed 11 times for 55 yards and two TDs.

Cox earns another SoCon award

Though Appalachian State lost 27-24 to Charleston Southern last weekend, Dacula grad Marcus Cox was named the Southern Conference freshman of the week for the second week in a row.

Cox had another big game for the Mountaineers with 17 carries for 89 yards and two TDs, as well as four catches for 91 yards and another score.

Blanchard named SAA player of the week

Collins Hill grad Mitchell Blanchard, a freshman on Berry College’s inaugural football team, was named the Southern Athletic Association’s special teams player of the week on Monday.

Blanchard punted eight times for 290 yards (36.2 average) in the Vikings’ 36-24 loss to Rhodes. On a fake punt, Blanchard also scored Berry’s first-ever touchdown with a 47-yard run. His 41.1-yard season average ranks first in the SAA this season.

The SAA award was also the first in program history.

Boatright steps up for Samford

With one of Samford’s starting offensive guard lost for the season to a broken leg, Peachtree Ridge grad Jordan Boatright has stepped in and played well.

The 6-foot-2, 267-pound junior has started on the line since his teammate suffered a broken leg in the season opener.

“(Boatright) was ready to play anyway and was going to get a lot of playing time anyway even if (injured) Armando (Bonheur) was in there,” Samford offensive line coach Brandon Herring told al.com. “Jordan has stepped up. He played really well. This is his first significant time on the field.

“One thing with Jordan, you don’t have to worry about him getting after people. He is a buzz saw kind of guy. I’ve got to coach him down some.”

GOLF

Court helps Georgia State to top finish

Georgia State junior Lauren Court, a Collins Hill grad, shot a career-best 71 twice this week during the Old Waverly Bulldog Invitational in West Point, Miss., helping the Panthers to a third-place finish.

Court shot 1-under-par 71 in the first and third rounds for GSU, which recorded a school-record, 3-under 285 in the final round. The team’s 12-over 876 for three rounds also was the lowest in school history.

SOCCER

Penston has big game

North Gwinnett grad Kelly Penston powered North Georgia’s 4-2 win over Georgia College State University last weekend by playing a part in all four of the Nighthawks’ goals.

Penston scored the game-winner and assisted on her team’s other three goals, including one to Greater Atlanta Christian grad Mollie Arrendale, whose goal was the first of her freshman season.

Clark fuels Mercer win

Freshman Maddie Clark of Norcross provided all the offense last weekend in Mercer’s 3-1 victory over Northern Kentucky in the Atlantic Sun Conference opener.

Clark assisted the Bears’ first goal for a 1-0 lead, then scored two more goals over the next 27 minutes as the hosts took control.

Gwinnett Grads is a column that runs on Saturdays spotlighting achievements of past Gwinnett standouts. Coaches and parents are urged to send suggestions via email to will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com.