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Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, the defensive star of the Bearcats’ run to the College Football Playoff, is leaving school early to declare for the NFL draft, he told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview.
Gardner projects as a first-round draft pick with the strong potential to end up in the top 15, according to NFL scouts. His productive junior year thrust him into the conversation among the top corners in the 2022 class.
Gardner, who is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, earned consensus first-team All-American honors this season. In more than 1,000 career snaps in coverage, Gardner never gave up a touchdown, according to Pro Football Focus statistics.
“I talked things over with my family,” Gardner told Yahoo Sports. “My work at Cincinnati is done. I came in and did everything I was supposed to do. I listened to everything the coaches were telling me to do to get in a better position to take care of my family.”
Gardner, a true junior, projects to become the first three-and-done player to be selected in the NFL draft during Luke Fickell’s tenure at Cincinnati. Gardner would be the first Cincinnati player selected in the first round since 1971. (He could have company, as Bearcat quarterback Desmond Ridder projects somewhere between No. 20 and 40.)
Gardner will have a strong advocate in Fickell, as the former Ohio State defensive coordinator considers Gardner “the best I’ve been around” at defensive back. Considering Fickell’s time at Ohio State spanned from Malcom Jenkins to Marshon Lattimore, he offered Gardner the highest defensive back praise when he told Yahoo Sports in November: “He’s the best I’ve ever coached.”
Ahmad 'Sauce' Gardner, aka CB1 pic.twitter.com/iXa1sNfJQu
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) December 31, 2021
Need Sauce Gardner in a Ravens uniform in 2022. pic.twitter.com/SdP1D91fgs
— Kip Smithers (@Chughes612) December 30, 2021
Fickell added in a phone interview Tuesday: “I really think he’s going to be a better pro. Even where he went from last year to this year, in his body and his ability to be a pro, take care of himself, work the game a little more and change his body. I think he’s going to grow more. A [coach] who is going to play more coverages is going to play to his strength. He’s a really smart football player.”
He proved to be a defensive linchpin in Cincinnati’s historic season, where the Bearcats went 13-0 before the CFP and became the first team from outside the Group of Five to ambush the playoff. Cincinnati lost to Alabama, 27-6, in the semifinal at the Cotton Bowl.
Gardner finished 2021 with three interceptions, three sacks and four pass break-ups. Quarterbacks so rarely threw his way that Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Tressel adjusted the scheme so Gardner would be more involved in third-down packages. Teams began running their worst player to the boundary to assure the ball wouldn’t come his way. Gardner finished this season allowing only 13 catches for 117 yards in 14 games.
"Sometimes it took him out of making plays," Fickell said. "He’s a better football player than we had a chance to show because we got away with locking him down so much. ... It allowed us to be a hell of a lot better defense because of his flexibility."
Gardner’s high-end season launched him into the thicket of the conversation as one of the draft’s top cornerbacks, where he’ll be debated with LSU’s Derek Stingley and Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. Teams that like rangy, physical corners – think Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets etc. – are expected to be attracted to Gardner.
His ability to thrive during Cincinnati’s star-kissed run to the CFP significantly raised his profile and placed him among the sport’s boldfaced names. The only individual accomplishment Gardner fell short on was the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s top defensive back, which went to teammate and close friend Coby Bryant. “When Coby won it,” Gardner said, “I felt like I won it also.”
Gardner’s run at becoming a first-round prospect truly began last offseason when Cincinnati strength coach Brady Collins and defensive backs coach Perry Eliano challenged him to gain weight so he could have the same physical build as the top two corners in last year’s class – Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II.
Gardner changed his diet and dedicated himself to the weight room, building himself to more than 200 pounds after ending the 2020 season at 183. He arrived at Cincinnati in 2019 at nearly 160 pounds and worked consistently to build his lanky frame.
That process of building his body in the offseason dovetailed with the theme Eliano stressed with Gardner – becoming a pro. He credits his development this season under Eliano to learning the responsibilities of what all of the other defensive positions around him are supposed to be doing.
“I had to become a pro before I became a pro,” Gardner said. “I had to learn a lot of aspects, in terms of being able to do interviews and getting places early instead of on time. That’s how you actually make it, and Coach Eliano told me I need to get there before I actually get there. I can’t get to the next level …without becoming a pro.”
In a phone interview after his final postseason meeting with Eliano, Gardner bragged: “He called me a pro today.”
Gardner grew up on Detroit's East Side, where he earned the nickname “Sauce” from a youth coach, Curtez Harris, who called him “A1 Sauce Sweet Feet Gardner” at age 6.
Gardner said he knows he can be an inspiration to children from his area. “The fact that I made it this far in the athletic aspect of things, I know they’re proud of me,” he said. “My whole city was watching the game against Alabama. I’m going to keep doing it for Detroit, the East Side specifically.”
And he said wherever he lands, the NFL will be getting a motivated player.
“They’re getting someone who loves football and loves to compete,” Gardner said. "I’m a very physical player and I have fun, man. You’ll see a lot of smiling from me. It’s innate in me.”