BOONE — Whether it’s an island or a phone booth, Cole Garrison is prepared for it.
That sentence will make a lot more sense in a moment.
Garrison, now a junior offensive lineman for Appalachian State, worked his way onto the football field with versatility, proving it with every snap he played in 2018. Garrison appeared at four of the five O-line positions (every spot but center) and started one game apiece at both right guard and left tackle.
His technique allowed him to become the patch for any issue the Mountaineers had last year on the line, which returns four starters and is expected to be one of the best in the Sun Belt Conference.
If you need confirmation of how important Garrison became during the 2018 season, listen to Vic Johnson, who’s going into his fourth year as the team’s starting left tackle.
“We owe Cole a lot for that. I feel like he saved us a lot,” Johnson said, adding, “I felt like he played better than me at the end of the season. And it was amazing to see him do it.
“We always appreciate Cole. He doesn’t really say much. Doesn’t like asking for credit. He just works. I’m appreciative of that,” Johnson said.
Part of Garrison’s ability to play anywhere came from his high school experience. Another part came from the tutelage of Shawn Clark, his line coach.
Garrison played at Clay-Chalkville High School, about which is 20 miles northeast of Birmingham, Ala. He said he played both guard positions while also getting experience at tackle. Though he had to learn new things, Garrison said his high school coach told him it would only make him better.
“I think just because I moved around so much that everything kind of felt like I did it regularly,” he said. “Like, I think within a snap or two I could be comfortable in most positions I played.”
That only intensified when he arrived at App State as a freshman, when he was exposed to how Clark coaches his offensive linemen.
Clark has focused on players learning different positions. If a player is a tackle, he also learns how to play guard. Guards work on the center position. That way, he said, each player gets repetitions at various positions in case injuries ravage the group.
Clark first took that approach in 2003, when he was at Eastern Kentucky. That season, his starting center was injured in a game. His backup center got hurt in Monday’s practice, and the third-string guy was lost on Thursday.
Clark found himself teaching a defense lineman from a scout team how to snap the ball just to have another body for the team’s next game. That’s when Clark realized he needed a coaching-philosophy change. Mountaineer players try different stances and blocking positions, and Clark makes his players think big picture about the offensive line.
“In meetings, we pick a day, and no matter the day, whether you’re a tackle or a guard, you’re playing center at the meeting,” Clark said. “You’re making all the calls to set our blocking scheme. You get a bigger picture as far as what’s happening in the box in front of us.”
But what sets Garrison apart from his teammates, Johnson said, is his ability to play on the left or right. First of all, Garrison said, people typically have a more flexible side of their bodies. Sometimes there are other variables.
And that’s even before the subtle nuances of each position are accounted for.
“When you’re at tackle, you’re on an island by yourself. You have no help,” Clark said. “When you’re at guard, you’re in a phone booth. You have a guy to your right and a guy to your left. So usually you have some kind of backup help no matter where it is.”
Garrison has followed the standard progression as a college athlete. He redshirted in 2016, appeared on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2017 and became an important backup last year. And during that time, he got to pick the brains of players such as Parker Collins, Colby Gossett and Beau Nunn, all of whom had chances to make NFL rosters after their time as Mountaineers ended.
Last season started with Garrison and Baer Hunter in a battle for right guard. The two rotated, but Hunter ultimately won out during the season. It has all helped Garrison prepare for the chance to become a starter this season should first-year Coach Eli Drinkwitz and Clark make that decision.
“I think just getting a little bit older, being a little bit more mature, you can avoid the complacency, just mentally,” Garrison said. “You don’t have to be forced into it, where as when you’re younger, you might have to be forced into it with a competition with somebody.
“So I can still do things I was doing when I was going back and forth with Baer and work on making sure I’m not getting complacent, letting someone else come behind me ... I definitely know I’ll be in the game, so I won’t have to worry about that.”