Boise State sophomore safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner switched to linebacker his senior year of high school.
He figured he needed a neck roll to look the part.
“That’s when you know you’re an elite linebacker, when you put on the neck roll,” he said. “I was joking around one day. I put it on and I was just balling with it.”
That anecdote is Sumner-Gardner in a nutshell — a fun-loving kid with a silly side who is all business once play begins, no matter where he’s playing or what equipment he’s wearing.
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“He likes to play around a lot,” junior cornerback Jonathan Moxey said, “but when we’re on the blue, he’s serious. He knows when to check in. Smart kid.”
Sumner-Gardner thrived in his first college start last week against Washington as the Broncos’ latest hard-hitting strong safety. He’ll make his second start Saturday at BYU — and if he sticks to his word, he’ll bring back the neck roll because he told a teammate he’d wear it if the Broncos won the opener.
If nothing else, it might be good for a pregame laugh.
“I just like to smile and have fun,” Sumner-Gardner said. “You would never see me walking around not smiling. I’m always smiling. When I smile, I feel like everybody else smiles.”
Sumner-Gardner graduated from West Mesquite (Texas) High early and enrolled at Boise State in January 2014 as a 17-year-old. He’s still just 18.
Junior safety Chanceller James jokes that he’s Sumner-Gardner’s father figure in Boise.
“He’s grown a lot,” James said. “I feel like every day, no matter what, he’s taking strides forward to being a better person, not just a better football player. He’s only 18 and a sophomore in college. ... His focus has gotten way better. He’s shown that he’s able to compartmentalize everything and make sure he’s doing everything the right way.”
That growth began to show in spring ball, when the Broncos lacked depth at safety and Sumner-Gardner was placed with the first team out of necessity. His mental game improved and he won the starting job.
He made five tackles (four solos) against Washington and narrowly missed an interception (he admits he can’t catch). A couple of his tackles came in 1-on-1 situations where a mistake would have led to a big play.
“I saw something in him that it clicked for him on Friday,” defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said. “His whole approach throughout camp has been great.”
Fans have waited 20 months to hear such words about Sumner-Gardner, who for his entire career will be scrutinized because of what he accomplished in high school and how he became a Bronco.
He developed into a top-100 recruit at West Mesquite and committed to Clemson and Texas A&M before a last-second decision to follow Yates to Boise.
But Sumner-Gardner’s passion for football traces back much farther than that, to his childhood in Buffalo, N.Y. He lived there until he was 11 or 12. He started playing football at 4 and considers his youth coach in Buffalo one of the most important influences on his life.
Sumner-Gardner wore the Buffalo area code — 716 — on his eye-black patches during the Washington game. “It’s always good to rep my hometown,” he said. “Not a lot of guys make it out of Buffalo.”
Sumner-Gardner’s mom moved the family — he has two brothers and a sister — to Dallas. He likes to say he was born in New York and raised in Dallas. He didn’t know then the role football would play in his life but he appreciates the increased opportunities the move created because of the level of play in Texas.
“Football is my happy place,” he said. “I can go on that field and have fun and fly around and knock people out. I just love it.”
He has played all over the field, including some lineman as a pudgy kid. He played running back and defensive end on the West Mesquite freshman team before moving to safety as a sophomore. He emerged as a top recruit as a junior and produced a monster senior season: 141 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and three interceptions. He was ranked as high as the No. 7 safety in the nation (by Scout.com) and as high as No. 86 overall (by Rivals.com).
Yates, then the co-defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, developed a tight relationship with Sumner-Gardner and landed his commit for the Aggies.
When Yates accepted the defensive coordinator job at Boise State in December 2014, Sumner-Gardner told him he was going, too.
“He told me no,” Sumner-Gardner said. “I said, ‘Hey, man, it’s not your decision. It’s mine.’
“And here I am.”
His arrival was treated much like that of a new quarterback — fans wondered if he would start as a true freshman and predicted an instant impact.
Sumner-Gardner shared those thoughts.
Instead, he played occasional series in the last 13 games and finished 17th on the team with 19 tackles — an experience he found humbling. Still, defensive backs coach Julius Brown said the star prospect never sulked or stopped working.
“Last year was a learning year,” said Sumner-Gardner, who discovered an interest in Egyptian artifacts and decided to major in anthropology. “I came in thinking I was going to play because I was that four-star recruit. Coach Yates really talked to me and let me know there were steps I needed to take.”
One reason Sumner-Gardner was drawn to Yates was because of how many players he has put in the NFL — Orlando Scandrick, Kyle Wilson, Jeron Johnson, George Iloka and Jamar Taylor. Those are role models for Sumner-Gardner.
So are teammates like senior safety Darian Thompson, senior cornerback Donte Deayon and former safeties Jeremy Ioane and Corey Bell.
“I took pages out of their books and put it in my book for success,’’ he said. “... I feel like now it’s my time. I worked so hard this spring and this summer. I feel like now I’ve got to shine and get my name out there.”
A little personality never hurts — and Sumner-Gardner has plenty of that.
“He’s a breath of fresh air as a coach,” Brown said. “He’s a kid you can get on and he’s still going to smile. ... Every day that he gets to go out and play football is like his birthday.”