Expectations for the University of West Georgia football team entering the 2016 season were through the roof.
And individually, perhaps no single player has had more of a microscope on his every move through the first three games of the campaign than junior quarterback Will Gardner.
The University of Louisville transfer won the starting role during the offseason and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion to some folks that the former Coffee County High School standout would just stroll onto the field and pick apart opposing defenses right from the get-go.
So following a few bumps in the road during the first two games, there was some head-scratching going on about the UWG offense and its new leader.
Whether it was warranted or not, Gardner heard the whispers.
"I feel like that's just the way society works. If you come from a bigger school, a Division I school, people kind of label that and think that you'll just come out here and light things up," Gardner said. "I feel like I put a lot more pressure on myself than anything. At the end of the day, I just have to eliminate some of that pressure. At the end of the day, it's still football and just come out here and play and have fun doing it. I could feel that in the second half [Saturday]. I was going out there and having fun just playing football."
If there were any questions to Gardner's ability, the 6-foot-5 talent answered them during the second half of the Wolves' 34-24 come-from-behind victory over Delta State in the Gulf South Conference opener on Saturday afternoon.
Gardner threw three of his four touchdown passes in the final 30 minutes of the contest, completing 18-of-30 attempts for 207 yards with an interception.
Now through three games, Gardner is 45-of-101 for 625 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
And while those numbers may appear pedestrian up to this point, there's more to it than just his performance.
The Wolves had several drops in the season opener against Catawba, had numerous big plays called back due to penalties in the win at Miles and there's also been an onset of injuries to the UWG receiving corps early this year.
Three of the opening-day starters Gardner had worked with through the offseason are out with injuries, as receivers J.J. Jones and D.J. Ezell went down in the first game and tight end Brandon Walton suffered an injury prior to the Delta State showdown, leaving only Qa Walker as the one constant so far in 2016.
UWG head coach Will Hall has defended his new quarterback early this year, while also noting that the offense has to improve to get to where it ultimately wants to be this season, due to the injuries and trying to get in rhythm with different receivers.
The third-year head coach offered a colorful analogy during his midweek press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
"If you've got a baby and he sleeps every night with his blanket, if you take the blanket away from the baby, physically he can sleep just as good without the blanket as he could with it. Mentally, he don't think he can. He thinks he needs the blanket," Hall said. "So where we're at right now from a comfort level, we had extreme comfort with a lot of our inside receivers. Will had thrown with them over the course of a spring, a summer and fall camp and now all of a sudden all those guys are gone and he's got to find a new security blanket, if you will."
Gardner will be the first to admit that he, nor the UWG offense as a whole, played up to their potential through the first two games, but he also believes things are starting to click and the best is yet to come for the West Georgia offensive attack.
"I feel like we got rolling there in that second half on offense, and that's big for us right now. We feel like we're just a ticking time bomb ready to go off," Gardner said. "I feel like we really haven't played a complete game on offense yet. That's our goal right now is to go out and play four quarters of good offense and just kind of show everybody what we have and what our skill set is. I don't think that we've done that so far yet. That's what makes us come out here so hungry to practice is you get ready for that to show everybody what we can do."
When it comes to injuries, Gardner can certainly feel for his receivers.
As the top-rated quarterback in Class AAAAA in high school, he suffered a ruptured ACL and missed his entire senior season.
Following a redshirt year at Louisville in 2012, Gardner played in six games in 2013 and went on to make seven starts in 2014 as a sophomore until another knee injury derailed his season after throwing for 1,669 yards and 12 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
After not playing in 2015, Gardner made the decision to transfer to UWG for the 2016 season.
And now that he's back on the field, Gardner understands just how precious an opportunity it is returning to the game he loves so dearly.
"I'm very blessed and fortunate. I give all the honor and glory to God, because it's been a long four years and I've learned to never take one of these opportunities for granted," Gardner said. "Never take a practice, a rep, a game, never take any of them for granted. Because just as quick as you step out, it can be taken away."
So for a veteran guy that already holds his undergraduate degree and is a junior in terms of playing eligibility, getting off to a slower start than expected isn't going to do anything but motivate him even more.
"You've got to stay calm and poised and I think that carries on to the guys around you. If they see their quarterback getting rattled, they start worrying and wondering," Gardner said. "So at the end of the day, it's my job to stay poised and stay under control so nobody gets rattled."
The next opportunity for Gardner and the third-ranked Wolves (3-0) to hit the field is Saturday evening in a 7 p.m. road contest at Albany State (1-2).
The Golden Rams feature a strong defense that is yielding just 15.3 points per game and 250.7 yards of total offense, while the offense goes through dual-threat quarterback Caleb Edmonds.
Edmonds leads ASU with 209 yards on the ground to go with a 46-of-84 passing clip for 672 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions.
The Golden Rams suffered two close losses to Valdosta State (16-7) and Tuskegee (28-18) before breaking into the win column with a 24-2 decision over Southeastern College last week.
With this marking the final non-conference contest of the regular season and one week before a huge showdown at North Alabama, the Wolves realize they can ill-afford to look past Albany State and fall into a trap-game scenario.
And for Gardner and UWG offense, it's a chance to take another step toward becoming that explosive unit they want to be.
"Our biggest goal is just to get better. I feel like the first three games we've played slow in the first half offensively. We want to get out, get rolling and get rolling early and keep that momentum and keep it going," Gardner said. "We want to play a good four quarters of football. That's our goal — to come out strong and finish strong and play like we know we're capable of playing."