Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner can do things on a football field that a coach simply can’t teach. It’s that quality that earned him his nickname. It’s also the quality that could make him the highest-drafted player in the history of the University of Cincinnati program.
Tea consensus All-American cornerback is projected to be selected as high as No. 2 overall Thursday in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. If Gardner is a top-four pick, he’ll make Cincinnati draft history.
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Late Bearcats Hall of Fame quarterback Greg Cook owns the record for the highest-drafted UC football player. Cook was the fifth overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1969 draft.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound former Chillicothe High School three-sport standout led Paul Brown’s Bengals to three straight wins at the start of his rookie campaign before a recurring shoulder injury disrupted his season and ultimately halted his career.
Like Cook, Gardner possesses a rare combination of freakish athleticism and length that has NFL coaches and general managers salivating. But Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said there are two other off-the-chart skills that make Gardner a can’t-miss prospect: vision and intelligence.
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In man-to-man coverage, the coverage Gardner played often under Fickell, former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and current Bearcats defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, a corner’s responsibility is to keep their eyes on their man – not the quarterback – and go wherever that man goes. If a corner’s eyes drift to the quarterback, they’ll likely lose sight of their man and surrender a big play. Not Gardner.
“He’s a guy that plays man coverage with the ability to see his man and still have vision for the QB and the ball,” Fickell told The Enquirer. “I don’t tell any kid to do that. We say, ‘You’re job when you’re playing man is to deny your man the ball. You’ve got to make sure you’re disciplined with your eyes.’ He’s the only guy I’ve been around that legitimately plays man on top of guys, smothering guys, but with also still having vision and awareness of the quarterback.”
That uncanny ability led to the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Detroit native collecting nine total interceptions – including returning two for touchdowns – and not allowing a receiving touchdown during his three-year Cincinnati career.
Gardner earned Associated Press first-team All-American honors as a junior and was the unanimous American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
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The stats and accolades are there, but Fickell said the true measure of Gardner’s value and draft stock is in his game film.
“There’s a couple of clips from this year (2021) and last year (2020) where he’s covering his man, and the quarterback takes off and runs,” Fickell said. “You see him come off his man and go make the tackle on the quarterback for like a three-yard gain. I’m like, ‘You can’t leave your … How did you see? … You’re supposed to have your eyes on your …’ He just does. He plays man, he plays on-body, and he still has the ability to have some vision (on the quarterback). I would assume it’s just pretty natural. I know it’s not taught by us.”
How did Sauce Gardner get his nickname?
Whether he was Gardner’s youth coach, “Coach Tez,” who gave a then-6-year-old Gardner the nickname “Sauce” because of Gardner’s shiftiness with the ball in his hands, or Freeman, who was hesitant to call Gardner by the saucy nickname until the skinny freshman jumped a hitch route against Central Florida and returned an interception 16 yards for a touchdown, coaches quickly see Gardner’s natural skills. It’s now time for the NFL to see them too.
Fickell said he will be in Las Vegas with Gardner and his family on Thursday when Gardner hears his name called.
“I wanted to just be there to say thank you to him more than anything.”