FROM the moment rising Gold Coast star Connor Budarick was assigned the job on Jeff Garlett in an NAB AFL Academy exhibition match last season, his defensive learning curve has not stopped.
Budarick was a junior midfield ace, winning selection in the under-18 All Australian team in 2019, but his coaches always had an eye to the future.
Then-Academy mentor Luke Power and Suns Academy boss Andrew Raines identified the small defender role as one that might suit the 175cm dynamo upon entry into the AFL.
So, when the AFL Academy played Casey in an exhibition match at the MCG, Budarick was assigned Garlett, who has 185 career games and 321 goals to his name.
"When I got told I'd have the job on him it was pretty eye-opening," Budarick said.
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"After the game he said that I needed to worry about the ball more and not just the man.
"I was very one-on-one with him, and that's something I've been trying to build, that balance between locking a forward down and getting the footy too."
When the Suns drafted the 19-year-old as a prelisted Academy player, the defensive end quickly became his home.
Since his round one debut on Port Adelaide's Robbie Gray, Budarick has nailed down the job of Gold Coast's stopper of the best opposition small forward.
He was named the Rising Star nominee after the Suns' round three win over Adelaide and has already solidified his spot in the 22.
Football manager Jon Haines said despite Budarick's youth, he had the utmost trust from his teammates.
"He's an absolute competitor, and that always stands you in really good stead with your teammates," Haines said.
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"The second part is the way he prepares. He prepares like an absolute professional. He's a really mature head on a young body.
"He loves the game and he studies the game really hard and studies his opponents really strongly. His attention to detail to what he's coming up against each week is really strong."
Budarick's match-ups have included Coleman Medal leader Tom Papley, who he kept to two goals.
"He got away from me at one stage, he led up at the footy and came back to the fall of the ball and I thought I had him covered, but I got checked by someone and he swooped in.
"It only takes that split-second lapse of concentration or lapse of awareness on your opponent and they can really hurt you.
"The more I can learn off those sorts of players, the better it is for me."
He will get no bigger test than this Sunday, lining up on Greater Western Sydney superstar Toby Greene, fresh off destroying Richmond with five goals last Friday night.
Budarick said it's been a simple transition from the midfield to the back 50 after always placing a premium on defensive pressure in his time on-ball.
Greene is a different beast, though.
"He's an awesome player and he has been for a few years, so if I do get that opportunity I'll definitely do my homework, that's for sure," Budarick said.
"He's great in the air, can take a good grab, he's really strong. I'd assume he'd probably go up the ground a fair bit … so hopefully I can nullify that, go up with him and halve the contest.
"It's definitely exciting."