Kurtenbach: Why a two-way player with a second job could be key to 49ers’ playoff hopes

From playing two ways to offseasons with the Air National Guard, new 49ers starting center Ben Garland took an unconventional path to the helm of San Francisco's offense.

San Francisco 49ers’ Ben Garland (63) snaps the ball during training camp at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. (Randy Vazquez/Bay Area News Group)
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SANTA CLARA —  Ben Garland was never meant to be here; in this position.

He was never even meant to be a center, much less the starting center for a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

The NFL? Who saw that coming? He wasn’t even paid his first two years in the league.

And what is a captain with the Air National Guard 140th Security Forces Squadron doing in this NFL locker room, anyway?

While the path that has led Garland to his new role as the 49ers’ starting center was anything but traditional and certainly didn’t follow any obvious plan, his coaches and teammates are anything but rattled with the development.

“He just fights scratches and claws,” 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey said this week. “You can see why he’s been in the league as long as he has… why teams love him.”

Garland, 31, has a chance to not just stick around, but to make a huge impact, too. This is a whole new level to being a team player.

But make no mistake — Garland is ready for it.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The position’s name connotes its importance, yet center might be the most underappreciated job in football.

Every play starts with the center, after all, and if he’s not ready or unable to perform, that play — but really the whole offense — is unlikely to go anywhere.

The center is the man tasked with making sure the entire offensive line blocks correctly. He — like the quarterback — must recognize what the defense is doing and adjust to it on the fly. And, oh, I almost forgot: the center also has to block a world-class athlete who is trying to take the most direct route in his quest to kill the man with the ball.

“You have to set the table for everyone,” 49ers guard Mike Person said. “It’s a full-time job both mentally and physically — you’re directing traffic out there in the 10 seconds before the snap. Trying to get everything perfect. And then after the snap, you still have to do your job.”

Yeah, center is a pretty important job. And in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers’ run-first offense, it’s exceptionally demanding.

“[Having a good center] allows you to do a bunch of different stuff,” Shanahan said in 2018. “It puts versatility in everything you can do… It helps solidify the entire o-line. That’s usually where [good offense] starts.

“When you have a difference-maker at that position, I’ve found in my career that it’s been a lot easier to run an offense.”

San Francisco lost its first-string center, Weston Richburg, to a season-ending patella injury Sunday in New Orleans. Richburg was unquestionably a “difference maker” at the position, playing at a Pro Bowl level this year.

But with Garland now at the epicenter of the offense, it remains business as usual for the 49ers.

The 49ers thought they might have to start the season with Garland as the team’s center. Richburg’s 2018 injuries and their rehab processes carried into 49ers’ training camp in August, through the preseasons, and were threatening to keep him out of the lineup in Week 1 of the 2019 campaign and perhaps beyond.

“You don’t want to say it’s fortunate,” McGlinchey said. “But it’s fortunate that he did get the chance that he did in spring and then in training camp with Weston being down.”

Garland is used to making the most of opportunities — of making a good impression, despite the peculiarity of the circumstance.

Garland, a Grand Junction, Colo. native, registered 115 tackles, 11.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and two blocked kicks in 39 games at the Air Force Academy as a defensive lineman, and then signed with his favorite team, the Denver Broncos, as an undrafted free agent. It was a dream come true for him, but it was expected by most to be a short-lived adventure.

Denver placed him on the reserve-military list after his first training camp as he fulfilled his two-year military service requirement while stationed at the Academy.

During that time, he practiced with the Broncos as a defensive lineman, but wasn’t able to play in games. He also wasn’t paid.

“I’m the last known guy that was on [the list],” Garland told me Thursday. “It works out crazy well for the NFL. I mean, you’re able to take a guy’s rights, he can’t go to any other the team — you don’t have to pay him.”

A dream for NFL owners, for sure.

The no-risk bet certainly worked out well for the Broncos. Garland’s work ethic helped him develop into a good enough defensive lineman that the Broncos signed him to their practice squad after his two years on the reserve-military list.

But his confidence and trash talk on the practice field started him on the path to Sunday’s start at center.

“I kind of gave o-linemen a hard time,” Garland said. “I didn’t think they were very athletic. Every time an o-lineman went down in practice, I’d just sprint out. I was like, ‘this is too easy. I got it’.”

It’s hard to believe that Garland has talked any trash in his life. Even in a locker room full of upstanding professionals in Santa Clara, he stands out as next-level — a family history of military service and the Academy’s training unsurprisingly manifesting in the 31-year-old.

So Garland picked up sporadic offensive line reps in Denver — partially as a joke, partially because he was a practice-squad player looking for any way to be useful.

Eventually, it was no longer a quirky thing he did every now and then. Garland thinks that then-Broncos strength coach Luke Richesson is responsible for making him a full-time two-way player.

“(It) was a joke at first,” Garland said. “I planning D line, and coach just said, ‘Hey, grab your offensive playbook by three o’clock.’

“And I was like: ‘yeah, good one’.”

“He goes: ‘yeah, seriously.’”

But it’s not surprising that Garland took to the offensive line — a position he had not played since high school; why he didn’t find it to be a dramatic mental adjustment to work two jobs on the football field.

“It was probably my mindset,” Garland said of the Broncos decision to make him a two-way player. “I took towards studying. I was in (the facility) constantly trying to learn offensive plays. I would do my best to play against them and I would always get in there before the coaches and leave after everybody… Just studying and analyzing and doing stuff like that.”

“It’s been about mindset my entire career. Just work as hard as I can,” Garland said. “Core values: excellence in all we do is the Air Force belief… That, and probably the church as well: Work not for man, but for God.”

That work ethic and mindset are what has stood out most to his 49ers teammates and the main reason they have unshakeable confidence in him as he takes over as the 49ers starter at an intensely complicated position he only started playing a few years ago.

“Ben is as good and strong and tight with his preparation as anybody that I’ve ever been around in the game of football,” McGlinchey said.

(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

In Denver, Garland worked his way from the practice squad to the active roster, seeing here-and-there snaps on the offensive line and special teams in 2014.

He signed with Atlanta in 2015 — whose offense was coordinated by Shanahan — and was placed on the practice squad, where he continued to be a two-way player. He was promoted to the Falcons’ active roster at the end of that first season in Georgia, and in 2016, his role increased — in addition to special teams duty, he saw more playing time at defensive tackle throughout the season, and late in that campaign, he started seeing serious time as an offensive guard.

That two-way skill was used in the Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl in 2016 — he had three quarterback hits (including one in the Super Bowl) and two tackles for a loss in Atlanta’s three playoff games, and he played seven offensive snaps in that year’s NFC Championship Game.

In 2017, he became a late-in-the-season starter at offensive guard for Atlanta, and the conversion was complete.

He started seven games at guard in 2017 and 2018, taking only seven more defensive snaps, before signing with Shanahan and the 49ers this past offseason. San Francisco’s press release on the signing only referred to him as an offensive lineman.

Given that he was — not too long ago — an NFL-level defensive lineman, you could forgive the 49ers if they considered making Garland a two-way player once again in recent weeks as injuries have ravaged the team’s defensive line.

But the injury to Richburg — which forced him to play the final 36 snaps of the game against the Saints, for which he received strongly positive reviews — has thrust Garland into a more important role.

“Replacing Richburg is a huge job,” Shanahan said. “Ben came in and we were able to not miss a beat. He stepped it up, knew the game plan well… made a number of plays in the game that helped us.”

“From day one he was on all of his P’s and Q’s, you know?” Person said. “And when you have a veteran guy come in like that, it just gives everybody else confidence, not just on your line, but everyone else in that huddle, because they know that this guy knows what he’s doing and he’s not going to let you let you down.”

Whenever this season is over — the 49ers hope that’s after a parade down Market Street (or Santa Clara…) — Garland will return to Colorado to start his other job (he loves moonlighting) as a captain in the Air National Guard 140th Security Forces Squadron, based at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo. Garland completed his military commitment years ago, but he continues to be a reservist, serving 48 consecutive days every offseason at Buckley.

And with that level of commitment, it shouldn’t be surprising that for Sunday’s game against the Falcons — his first NFL start at center — Garland is sponsoring tickets for folks he recently visited at the VA hospital, as well as those “needing some help” at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View.

“It’s something (to say) we’re here for you,” Garland said. “They talk about the service members are your brother and sisters in arms and are there are some having hard, hard times.”

I thought that I’d love to have him out the game — give ’em a little pick me up.”

What a guy.

And that kind of character is not lost in the locker room.

“He’s on every detail. He’s on everything… And he’s a fighter,” McGlinchey said. “Having those things together… he’s going to have success not only this Sunday, but the rest of the year moving forward.”

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