How Darrick Forrest pushed Jets' cornerback Sauce Gardner 'to be great'

·5 min read

How Darrick Forrest pushed Jets' Sauce Gardner 'to be great' originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

This past April, Ahmad Gardner's childhood dream became a reality.

Nicknamed "Sauce" since he was in little league, Gardner was selected fourth overall in the 2022 NFL Draft by the New York Jets following a stellar three-year career at Cincinnati where the cornerback didn't allow one single touchdown.

Let's rewind a few years, though, and head back to the summer of 2019. Gardner arrived at Cincinnati as a three-star recruit, a cornerback with great size at 6-foot-1 but someone who needed to put on weight. Gardner weighed roughly 162 pounds as a recruit, according to Rivals.

Here's where current Washington Commanders safety Darrick Forrest enters the picture. When Gardner arrived on campus, Forrest was entering his third year with the program. In 2018, Forrest started 12 games for the Bearcats and impressed. Entering 2019, the safety figured to play a major role in Cincinnati's defense and become one of the team's leaders.

Sharing a secondary together, Forrest and Gardner got to know one another well right away. Forrest saw promise in Gardner but knew he'd have to add some muscle to his frame. Simply put, Forrest took the then-freshman cornerback under his wing, especially in the gym.

“He always pushed me, man. He pushed me to be great – especially in the weight room," Gardner said in a recent interview with NBC Sports Washington. "He was always like ‘Come lift with me, come over here.’ He just helped me get bigger, stronger, more explosive, faster."

Listed at 6-foot, 200 pounds at Cincinnati, Forrest was significantly bigger than Gardner when the cornerback arrived on campus. "The weight he used to do was way, way crazier than the weight I used to do," Gardner said. That didn't stop him from making Gardner one of his lifting partners.

During the fall of 2019, Gardner's freshman year, the secondary used to do leg workouts on Fridays. Forrest recalled one specific session where they pushed Gardner to his limit and then some.

"We did leg press on Fridays and had sled push to finish [the workout]," Forrest said. "We loaded it up, the leg press, and we’re like ‘You’ve got 10.’ He did 10, then we were like ‘you’ve got three more.’ He was about to die. That was probably the funniest day, man. He got up, his legs were wobbling.”

Although Gardner could barely walk following that session, the work definitely paid off. Three years after arriving on campus just over 160 pounds Gardner is now listed at 200 pounds. He also grew two inches during his college years, as he's now 6-foot-3 -- giving him a size advantage over many opposing receivers.

“That was his freshman year. He came in skinny," Forrest said. "He got swole by his senior year, but he came in skinny. He was about to die on that leg press.”

Cincinnati's defense was stout in 2019 with both Forrest and Gardner playing significant roles. Both players were named first-team All-AAC selections that season, as the Bearcats unit was one of the best in the entire conference.

Both Forrest and Gardner experienced similar on-field success in 2020, their second year playing together. Gardner, once again, earned first-team All-AAC honors and was a consensus All-American. Forrest was named honorable mention All-AAC and listed on several major award watch lists during the season. The Bearcats went 9-1 during the pandemic-altered season, with their lone loss coming in the Peach Bowl against Georgia.

For as much as Forrest helped Gardner in the weight room, he learned a ton from the safety's work ethic as well.

"He worked real hard. That’s the thing – in all seriousness – he works extremely hard," Gardner said. "He made sure I studied the playbook; he always knew what was coming before it happened. He always communicated. I always loved playing with him."

Off the field, the two defensive backs become close as well, even despite the two-year difference in school.

"I’ve always been younger, but the thing I love about DFoe is that he didn’t care how young I was," Gardner said. "... Anything I would say, regarding football or just life in general, he would just listen to it. I feel like that’s why we were able to get so close and get to where we’re at now.”

Following the 2020 season, Forrest declared for the NFL Draft where Washington would select him in the fifth round. Gardner returned for his true junior season in 2021 and shined once more, cementing his status as one of the top cornerbacks in the 2022 draft class.

Despite no longer being teammates, Forrest and Gardner remain in contact. While they don't take every day anymore -- the NFL schedule makes that quite difficult -- they're still close friends.

"I hit him up anytime I see him doing something. It’s just family, man," Forrest said. "When you come out of Cincy, it’s family. Especially with the stuff we built over there.”

Earlier this week, Gardner partnered with Buffalo Wild Wings to release his signature "Sauce Sauce" flavored wings, which the cornerback says is a mix of "sweet, smoky and spicy barbeque." With Garnder's stardom, more brand deals as such are likely coming.

After all, Gardner is still a rookie and has yet to play an NFL game. Even for a player as talented as him, there's naturally going to be growing pains from college to the professional ranks.

Having been through the transition from Cincinnati to the NFL, Forrest doesn't feel he needs to give his former teammate any advice, however. He's got full faith that Gardner will end up being that standout player the Jets hope he'll become.

“Nah, man, that boy is a star! He got it, man. I just tell him to keep his head right. That’s it," Forrest said. "He’s got that personality and it shines. You know that’s my dawg."