Garner brings enthusiasm to grad assistant role

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- It doesn't take long for graduate assistant coach Kirk Garner to draw attention on the practice field at Virginia.

Garner's enthusiasm for the job is evident, whether he's hopping around and clapping in an attempt to distract a kicker, or mimicking coverage on a punt return, or going back to his roots as a cornerback by lining up across from a receiver.

"I really don't find it. It really finds me," Garner said of his enthusiasm. "And sometimes I feel like I make a fool out of myself, but it's natural. It just naturally comes out of me."

Garner spent five seasons as a backup corner and contributing on special teams with the Cavaliers, appearing in 23 of 24 games as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and sophomore in 2015. Garner made 15 tackles in eight games as a junior in 2016, but an ACL injury cost him the final four games of that season.

A concussion and then a torn quad muscle limited him to just one game as a fifth-year senior in 2017, essentially ending his playing career. He transitioned into a player-coach role during that season, then joined the UVA staff as a graduate assistant last spring.

"I try to find something new every day to keep me going," Garner said of his approach to coaching.

"He has that skill set that's just fun to be around," said UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall. "Coach Atuaia and he could be best friends. There's all kinds of energy and enthusiasm. It's just fun to be around, and it brings a smile. When it's a competitive game and it's a lot of work, but for someone to have that energy helps."

Mendenhall's staff at UVA is comprised in large part of assistants who played for him and then served as graduate assistants at BYU. Garner is among the growing group of Mendenhall's former UVA players who have graduate assistants with the Cavaliers -- a list that also includes Jackson Matteo and CJ Stalker, as well as Matt Johns, who's now at William & Mary.

Garner was on the UVA staff last year when the Wahoos shut out South Carolina in the Belk Bowl for the program's first postseason win in 13 years. Playing a part in the program's turnaround is an opportunity he can appreciate.

"Every freshman that comes in has the same dream that I have, and that's to beat Tech and to win bowl games," Garner said. "So just to have that consistent theme going, we hear that message every day, and I have no problem preaching it myself."

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