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As NFL draft begins Thursday, former Jefferson High QB Stephen Garcia works to salvage troubled image

TAMPA — Dark gray clouds roll in from the west on a warm morning as Stephen Garcia displays his tweaked throwing motion, tightened waistline and temperate philosophy.

His 6-foot, 2½-inch frame carries 218 pounds these days, and the three-quarter-style throwing motion he got away with in college has been supplanted by a compact, overhead delivery. The last time he drank alcohol? "Probably last November," he says.

With that, Garcia — whose prolific career at Jefferson High was followed by a turbulent one at South Carolina — flings another spiral at Skyway Park to workout partner and former Dragons teammate Ardalon "Ardi" Yazdi.

By night, Yazdi works as a bartender at World of Beer. For Garcia's detractors, this is delectable. You can hear their cracks about how this befits a kid with a six-pack of college disciplinary actions, most — if not all — of which were alcohol-related. Garcia, 24, understands the public skepticism of him is as thick as the morning humidity.

He even suggests he deserves it.

"I was immature," says Garcia, dismissed from South Carolina in October after five suspensions. "That's what it came down to. I was immature and hard-headed and was trying to be like every other college kid.

"Even those guys, the frat guys, they learn from their mistakes eventually. I just never did 'cause I kept getting away with stuff. That's kind of what bit me in the (butt), so to speak."

Now, as the three-day NFL draft begins tonight, Garcia is bent on proving he has changed, really and truly. That he is worth a late-round gamble or a free agent invitation to training camp. That he is physically sleek and mechanically sound, disciplined and domesticated.

"The million-dollar question (for NFL teams) is, 'Can we trust him?' " says Jesuit High and Northwestern alumnus Chris Martin, Garcia's agent. "That's one thing we've tried to demonstrate, that he can be trusted."

Garcia, who started 34 games for the Gamecocks, threw for nearly 7,600 yards and led South Carolina to its only SEC East Division title two autumns ago, has dropped nearly 30 pounds since leaving Columbia.

Daily workouts with renowned Tampa athletic trainer Josh Cooper have been interspersed with film and throwing sessions with former University of Maryland and Tampa Bay Storm quarterback John Kaleo, who operates a local quarterback academy.

Garcia observes a strict, calorie-conscious diet — with meals prepared by a chef — and swims daily. When finished, Garcia says, he goes home to the South Tampa apartment he shares with girlfriend Amanda and 41/2-year-old son Memphys.

Martin says those who have spent quality time with Garcia can see a transformation and that Garcia has made a favorable impression on NFL types who have interviewed him.

"They've gotten a sense that he has made that turn," says Martin, whose clientele includes Terrell McClain (Panthers), Eric Weems (Bears) and former Hillsborough High star Jarred Fayson (Colts).

"His focus has been on getting ready for this draft as well as his family lifestyle. I think people on the outside of it can see that and see that he has grown."

Nonetheless, Garcia is projected as a late-round pick at best. deems him the No. 23 prospect at his position. ESPN draftnik Mel Kiper recently said on a live webchat that Garcia is a "free agent, obviously," meaning he doesn't expect the quarterback to be picked in the seven-round draft.

Yet Garcia's optimism has been buoyed by recent workouts. Martin says Garcia was extremely sharp at South Carolina's pro day, to which he was invited. Garcia also took part in an NFL "super regional" scouting combine in Detroit and had a recent private workout with the Bucs.

At January's Battle of Florida all-star game, a convergence in Boca Raton of draft-eligible players with state ties, he tossed touchdown passes of 60 and 24 yards.

Kaleo says Garcia possesses a "good arm," greatly improved mechanics and the "it" factor.

"If your teammates don't love you, you can't be a quarterback," Kaleo says. "And through all the turmoil he went through, right or wrong, at the end of it, when you talk to his teammates, they all love him. When he played in that all-star game … his teammates all loved him."

The question now is, does the NFL have any love to give?

Martin says about a dozen teams have made overtures. If Garcia goes undrafted, he likely will sign a free agent deal. At this stage, he'll accept any chance to get a team to believe in him the way his inner circle does.

"I say this with 100 percent certainty: He's an NFL player playing college football," Martin says. "I could name 15 third-team quarterbacks in the league right now that he's better than today."



Stephen Garcia at South Carolina

QB showed promise but was suspended five times, then kicked off the team in October 2011.


As NFL draft begins Thursday, former Jefferson High QB Stephen Garcia works to salvage troubled image 04/25/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 11:36pm]
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