May 20, 2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Ben Garland spent his offseason fulfilling his 2015 commitment to the Colorado Air National Guard and now he's fighting to serve as one of Peyton Manning's primary protectors.

Five years after turning heads by chasing down Tim Tebow and then outracing the quick quarterback in post-practice wind sprints, the former Air Force defensive lineman is finally getting his shot at starting on Denver's offensive line.

He's competing with veteran journeyman Shelley Smith, among others, for the left guard spot vacated when Orlando Franklin bolted to San Diego in free agency.

Garland played in eight games last season after spending two years on the Broncos' practice squad, a stint that followed his two-year military commitment to the Air Force.

Garland figures he's the perfect fit for new coach Gary Kubiak's zone blocking system.

After all, he faced plenty of cut blocks in college, where he collected 115 tackles, 11 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles in 39 games at Air Force.

''Every single day,'' Garland said. ''I loved it. I remember days we had no pads on and they would still cut.''

Now that he's on the other side of the ball, he appreciates it even more.

''I love the zone scheme. It's more lateral movement, quick, being smart and being able to move quickly and get out on blocks,'' said Garland, who packs 308 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame and also sports a thick beard now that he doesn't have to put on his military uniform again until next year.

''It helps a lot to be from the other side. You kind of understand the way that they're thinking, and that really helps you defend against them,'' he said.

General manager John Elway promised Manning he'd fix his pocket of protection this offseason, and he added Smith in free agency and center/guard Gino Gradkowski via a trade before drafting guard/tackle Ty Sambrailo.

Elway made it clear the holdovers were part of the solution, particularly Garland and two players who didn't play as rookies: tackle Michael Schofield and center Matt Paradis.

''I think they really have a chance,'' Elway said. ''So, that's why we're excited about them. They haven't had a lot of experience. The only way you can get that is to play.''

Former coach John Fox was a big fan of Garland's work ethic and used to say all he lacked was the opportunity. It was Fox's staff that first saw Garland's potential and converted him from defensive tackle to offensive guard in 2013.

Garland peppered zone-blocking guru Alex Gibbs with questions as he made the transition.

''I don't think I'd be where I am without his coaching and mentorship,'' Garland said. ''I'd go into his office and just pick his brain. To be able to learn from the guy who essentially created the zone scheme, that's really helped my progress.''

Garland also credits former teammate Will Montgomery, who followed Fox to Chicago this offseason, saying, ''he taught me a lot because he used to be in the zone scheme for a long time.''

While some of his teammates tweeted pictures of their sunny offseason vacations, Garland was busy fulfilling his 2015 military commitment so he could concentrate fully on football.

''When you love what you do, why do you need an offseason?'' he said. ''I love going to the Air Force and putting on that uniform.''

And he wants nothing more than to suit up on Sundays and start for the Broncos.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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