Linemen get the edge they need to shine

Josh Garnett (Kim Grinolds/Dawgman.com)

For those who are unsure, here goes; Josh Garnett and Zach Banner are not brothers. Just ask them. Despite not having similar last names, their identities are confused so often that Garnett recently posted a message on his Facebook account that went something like this: "Word to all friends: My name is not Zach Banner. Do not come up to me and say Hey Zach, or Oh my gosh is that Zach Banner?"

Josh has a point - they aren't related. And no, it doesn't really bug him, but it is surprising how often the two are mistaken for each other. One time Banner, a 6-foot-9, 300-pound two-sport star from Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash. - a suburb of Tacoma - was in Garnett's town - Puyallup - playing basketball at the YMCA.

During the game, someone confused Banner for Garnett within earshot of Zach. "How did Josh get so good?" was the comment. "Man, he's almost better at basketball than football."

Banner turned around. "I'm not Josh," he said. "My name is Zach. What's your name?"

It's been this way for well over a year now, ever since Garnett and Banner first met each other at the same YMCA. It played out like a Reese's peanut butter cups commercial.

"You're Josh Garnett," Banner said.

"You're Zach Banner," was Garnett's reply.

"We were cool right off the bat," added Banner.

And of course, as soon as they walked into the gym, everyone thought they were related.

"I need to get my rep up," said Walker Williams, chiming in with his two cents about the whole mistaken identity thing. "It's happened at least five times where people thought I was Zach Banner. Zach is a popular guy around here."

And so it goes. When you have three young men of the same age, averaging in size from 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds to 6-foot-9 and 300-plus pounds, you might get a little confused too. Add in the fact that all three of them are outstanding high school athletes, heading toward the top of their game, and the uninitiated could get quite dizzy keeping it all straight.

They are more than happy to sort it out for you.

Joshua Garnett is a 6-foot-5, 275-pound offensive lineman from Puyallup, Wash. - considered by Scout.com to be the No. 1 guard prospect in the entire country.

Zach Banner is a 6-foot-9, 300-pound offensive tackle prospect from Lakes, also a standout basketball player who recently helped lead the Lancers to the Class 3A Hoops Title.

Walker Williams is a 6-foot-7, 321-pound offensive lineman prospect from Tacoma Baptist High School.

I was lucky enough to trap the three of them in a room at Competitive Edge, a training facility on the outskirts of Puyallup. I asked questions, kept my mouth shut the rest of the time, and reveled in the interaction between these three student-athletes. My motivation was purely scientific; the Evergreen State has never, in the modern history of football recruiting, seen anything like it before - three players of their size and ability, coming from three different backgrounds, to work out together - to push each other, to supplement the work they were already putting in with their own teams.

The only other example I could point to in the Pacific Northwest was back in 2001, when Kellen Clemens (Oregon), Nic Costa (Arizona), and Derek Anderson (Oregon State), had all been ranked by Rivals as three of the top-eight quarterbacks in the country. Up to that point, it was considered an oddity, a comet, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But here it was happening again, right in my own backyard.

How they came to Competitive Edge in the first place provided some insight into each player. Garnett, despite his low-key personality and quiet confidence, is the unquestioned ringleader of the group. The son of Scott Garnett, a former defensive standout at the University of Washington, Garnett was lifting seriously by the time he was in the seventh grade.



"It's something I enjoy doing, so it's a lot easier coming in here day-in and day-out," Garnett said. He spends upward of 20 hours a week at Competitive Edge, working out five days a week. "I like the look of lifts and moving big weights and getting those big lifts that you've been waiting for. It gets me in the weight room, working toward those goals."

Roughly a year ago, Joe Albers - who is a family friend - convinced George and Denise Williams to bring their son Walker to his training facility. Walker, who got a taste for the competitive nature of what he could expect at the next level through a marketing workout that spring, knew he had to step his game up off the field. The first day Williams came to Competitive Edge, Albers paired him up with Garnett.

Walker's competitive nature took over. "At first, I overdid it - doing it six days a week," he said. "I wasn't improving. I dialed it down." When he met the Garnetts, Williams didn't know how to do a power clean, didn't know what grip to use for a bench press. "I definitely had to work hard to get to where I am now.

"I started a little bit late, so I had to work really hard to not look that bad in front of Josh, who has some pretty good numbers on his lifts."

Around that same time, Garnett met Banner, and the two clicked. Josh knew he had to get Big Zach up to Competitive Edge to work out. Williams was already there; now it was a chance to add another large human to the roster.

"My whole focus since I was in the fourth grade, my Uncle Mark (Allen) was a big influence on me, and we used to do all the agility and speed and stuff," Banner said. "That's why you can see it when I run. I wasn't focused on lifting as much, because I wanted to be a more athletic tackle."

But when Banner started watching film of his sophomore season playing football, he saw he wasn't as strong as he needed to be. He had done some lifting on and off, but needed to get into a regular routine. Working with Garnett and Williams provided the missing link.

About three months ago, Banner showed up at Competitive Edge. Albers remembers it like yesterday. He was at the front entrance, and the sunny day outside suddenly turned dark. It was Big Zach. Banner blocked out three windows when he walked in. And walking into Albers' office before his workout, Banner has to be conscious of his head hitting the ceiling. He wants to tell Joe about the most recent AAU tournament experience, a third-place finish at the Spiece Run n' Slam All Star Classic in Fort Wayne, Ind. playing for Seattle Rotary.

"It was disappointing, we should have done better," Banner said, failing to mention at the time he didn't get back to Seattle until 2 am that morning. And yet here he was the following afternoon, ready to tackle some weights and get after a fairly intense Monday workout.

When Banner leaves the room, all Albers can do is smile and shake his head a little. "Zach is the latest addition," he said, making it sound as if he was stockpiling prep prospects seemingly ready-made for the physical rigors of the NFL. I mean, how often do you find three man-children this well-respected in the recruiting community in Tacoma, Wash.? The answer is easy - never.

"I comment on it every day…this is like a perfect storm of events," added Brian Petersen, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Partner at Competitive Edge. It's Petersen who cracks the whip whenever the kids need it. "They are going to reap the reward for it, absolutely.

"Every once in a while, they need a quick kick in the butt, and that's my job. But by and large, I've got no complaints about their work ethic and what they are here doing. Across the board, they've done a nice job."

Petersen is a fixture in the Pierce County community, graduating from Pacific Lutheran University in 1987 with a Bachelor's in Physical Education, concentrating on Sports Medicine. He's worked with athletes from every discipline imaginable, and with nearly all the top athletes from the Tacoma area, including Megan Quann Jendrick, a double-gold medal swimmer, and Ryan Moore, who had arguably one of the greatest seasons ever as an American golfer, winning the NCAA Championship, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Amateur Public Publinx, and the Western Amateur - all in 2004. Moore then turned pro, and won the Wyndham Championship in 2009, a PGA Tour event.

When Garnett, Banner, and Williams walk into the weight room at Competitive Edge, Petersen watches them, but it's mostly the work of two other men - Scott Garnett and Scott Rose, father of Buckley White River defensive tackle Scott Rose, who has also been working out with the group for a while - who oversee the lifting aspect. A couple of other high school players are also gearing up for the Monday session, including Auburn Riverside OL/DL Joe Miles, and one of Garnett's teammates at Puyallup, receiver Nic Wisor.

On this particular Monday, the group is in the middle of a month-long 'power phase' loading up on weight to near-max effort. The group will then go back to a conditioning phase when the players are playing spring football. Then they will be back to another power phase as the gear up for max lifts in August, right before their seasons start.

The group starts out with a stretch to open up their hips and get their bodies loosened up and pliable for the workout ahead. They use 'over/unders' on the squat rack to get hips extended and function movement screening. They will also do individual dumbbell press work for arm strength, jump pull ups for core strength, power clean work for explosion, lower body strength and back. The linemen will also focus on the front squat, which will help them work on balance and strength from the stance they normally use during games.

While Garnett works with one set of weights - for example, his power clean progression on this day goes from 155 pounds, to 205, 240, and finally 265 pound repetitions, Banner and Williams work out at roughly 75 to 80 percent of what Garnett lifts. "He's done it for years, so there's a night and day difference," Petersen said. "It's not a knock on those guys at all; (Garnett) is about a million reps ahead of them."

After their work in the weight room, the group will go out to the basketball court, where they engage in a series of footwork drills, including work with cones and steps to focus on foot speed, change of direction and explosion. Then finally finish their workout with an 18-pound medicine ball thrown roughly 15 feet straight up to a trainer positioned overhead.

During the footwork part of the workout, it's not uncommon to see the Tacoma trio surrounded by basketball players, volleyball players, and other high school athletes looking to also gain an edge in their particular discipline. It's part of the allure of Competitive Edge, and one of the core reasons why Joe and Linda Albers started the business 10 years ago.

"The goal is to teach each athlete how to train with discipline...how to establish the confidence and character it takes to be successful," it says on their website, www.gottheedge.com.

"They can come in here, and they've got a whole area to themselves," Albers said of their emphasis on providing the majority of their 70,000 square footage to developing prep athletes. "We do have an adult gym in the front, but they are separated by space."

Petersen, for his part, doesn't play favorites. For him, it's all about the group. "I think that's part of what we espouse here," he said. "I want the kids to be competitive, and they have to understand there's a time and place for everything above and beyond that - and this is not the place. This is a place for helping each other, pushing each other to get better. When it's time to play on the football field, then the gloves can come off and they can get after it."

Under the watchful eye of the adults, there's little time for the kids to just be kids. They slip from time to time, however.

"Instead of kicking it on the couch, we kick it in the weight room," said Banner. "We're getting better, but we're still having fun."

It's clear from the start that Garnett holds the room in his hands. He has refined his techniques to the point now where it's all about getting the numbers up, as well as his speed down. It's done as preparation for what Josh expects to see at the next level, and beyond.

And Williams, he's trying to make up for lost time. But he has one thing both Garnett and Banner want badly.

"For all the offers I've been lucky enough to get, (Williams) has that one from Wisconsin," Garnett said. "When I see him in the weight room, I tell him, 'Don't pancake me, Wisconsin!'"

"I'm kinda pissed about that too!" Banner said with a laugh. All this talk has Williams grinning from ear to ear - but it doesn't last long.

"For me, coming in a lot later than Josh, it helps having a group of elite linemen around," he added. "When I came in, Josh, at the time, had at least five offers, and Zach had at least that many. Even though I play in a smaller division, the jump from high school to Division-1 is huge, and anything you can do to prepare your body for the speed and the physicality of the game helps. You don't want to be coming into a training camp not ready, even if you're redshirting."

"He has huge upside potential," Petersen said of Williams, noting Walker's background in martial arts and basketball for help with his flexibility. "Coaches are going to look at him and say, 'We'll take that'."

Banner, who has struggled with trying to find that perfect workout blend to give him what he needs for both football and basketball, feels he's found it at Competitive Edge with Garnett and Williams. "I wasn't able to find that middle ground until I found these guys," he said. "Before it was all about athleticism…sprints and distance. I wanted to be athletic. But if you look at my sophomore clips, I wasn't strong. For me to be a top-notch offensive tackle, I have to be as strong as (Garnett) and (Williams). That's when I started working out with them. It's good for me to get in here, and it's also transferred to the court. My bounce is better and I'm stronger with my moves. Everything benefits."

While Garnett is a Competitive Edge veteran, bringing in the new blood - especially guys that are bigger than him, a first - has allowed him to grow and turn a corner in a way that may have taken him a lot longer given different circumstances. "It took him a while to figure out how to respond to that," Petersen said. "But I think he accepted the challenge to that - both physically and mentally - and now he's a great leader, and has been a leader for the Puyallup program for a couple of years now. He's been the best at what he does for a long time, at most of the levels he's been at. But it's been a pleasure to see him grow and develop as a young man."

Competitive Edge has given the three big men an outlet they don't get at their high schools, or anywhere else, for that matter. It gives them a place where they can share similar stories, talk the same language. Banner is arguably the only one of the three who has peers at his school that know what he's going through as a coveted two-sport star.

When talk turns to recruiting, they all acknowledge their curiosities. "We definitely talk about it a lot," said Garnett. "We talk about what schools we're interested in."

"You can see after NFL games, all the guys are coming together," added Williams. "Those are the relationships they had before. Knowing that all of us are being heavily recruited in the Pac-12, it's a really good possibility that we're going to be seeing each other at least once a year during the season on the football field."

"If not that, the same school," Banner quickly adds. It's an interjection not lost on the three of them, as they think about it a little bit.

The three agree that they could take official visits to colleges together. Banner already has his first official visit set, to Notre Dame the weekend of October 22nd, the same weekend the Irish host USC.

Then they start in on their distinct personalities.

"Walker and Zach are a little too loud for me," Garnett said with a wry smile as Banner looked at him, incredulous. "But they are funny and energetic."

Banner is having none of it, as the other two laugh. "You're done, bro!" he exclaimed. "I'll go to any gym and be loud, I accept that from Josh. Josh is so loud in the city of Puyallup. When we get to Puyallup and you walk into the gym, it'll be like, 'Zach! What's up!' And it'll be cool.

"But Walker, he will be the most sarcastic dude in the most non-sarcastic area. We're trying to get our serious lift on, and this man is saying a joke and make us laugh…we're killing ourselves dropping the weight, because he's always trying to be funny."

Walker fesses up. "We definitely have a good time in the weight room," he said. "Josh can get loud in the weight room, but it's hard to compete with me and Zach. And there would be no competition if there was a dance competition in the weight room. I can teach both these brothers how to dig it! We always have a good time in the gym."

Just call him Walker 'Twinkletoes' Williams.

At the end of the day, it might just be much ado about nothing. After all, if this was happening in California, or Florida, or Texas, would anybody be making a big deal out of this? Maybe not. But in the Evergreen State, the odds of these three Douglas Firs landing so close to each other is not lost on Albers.

"You probably won't see it again, especially when you see them," he said. "Their size is unbelievable."

Banner put it in even simpler terms.

"We're three big dudes," he said. "We're from the same area. It's something extraordinary. And we're all cool with each other. We're all friends…good personalities from all of us. All three of us are being recruited, all of us have good character, and we're working out with each other, getting each other better. You're not going to find a trio that works as hard as we do, combined. Ever."

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