FOX Sports AFC East Writer
New York Jets coach Robert Saleh has never seen a rookie talk as much rubbish as a cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner.
Gardner is completely different. His chatter, his physique, his mentality are all different. That’s why the Jets chose the Cincinnati product fourth overall in the draft, placing him in rare company as one of the few top-five cornermen in NFL history. The prestigious list included Jalen Ramsey, Patrick Peterson and Charles Woodson.
There are now two more as Gardner was drafted after the Texans drafted Derek Stingley Jr., an LSU cornerback who barely played in 2021 due to Lisfranc’s injury. No doubt these two angles will be linked and juxtaposed for years to come.
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The Jets aren’t calling Gardner Sauce until he plays in the regular season. But it’s easy to see why he’s had that nickname since he was 6 years old. When Gardner chats with his teammates, he has one goal: to improve their game. He wants them to give him their best. However, speaking nasty things against opponents, he pursues another goal: to destroy their trust.
“I see this happening a lot,” Gardner said. “You get receivers trying to do things out of the norm and that just makes them worse. It’s a good thing about trash talking and taking people out of their game to screw up their timing with the quarterback.”
Gardner can take control of a wide receiver matchup by simply scolding him. While some players may lose control in the process, this is not Gardner. One day during spring training in Cincinnati, he and the wide receiver got annoyed and a fight broke out. Gardner didn’t throw punches or aggravate the fitness, but he also didn’t stop chatting with the recipient. Bearcats defensive coordinator Mike Tressel pulled Gardner aside to tell him to stop. Gardner just smiled.
“I understand. He’s going crazy,” he told Tressel on the sidelines.
The trash talk worked. The receiver lost the mental match and in turn lost the match on the field. This is just one of many examples of Gardner’s radiant confidence – just the right thing for a cornerback.
“Most of the young players are fighting for a spot on the roster,” Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “They are fighting to potentially start the game. I don’t think that’s his way of thinking. I think he’s thinking, ‘I’m going to be the best at this game.'”
The secret to Gardner’s confidence—rare in the sense that it’s not arrogance—is that it’s born of humility. If this sounds paradoxical, then remember what I warned you: this guy is just different.
Growing up in Detroit, Gardner didn’t do well in high school. In fact, Tressel recalled watching Gardner play against Tressel’s son, who was the receiver. Although Gardner had cut Tressell’s son out of the game entirely, the coach did not consider recommending that the state of Michigan (where Tressell worked at the time) hire Gardner. He ended up in Cincinnati.
In Gardner’s first season, he was as skinny as an end zone pylon. He showed a weight of 152 pounds. His coaches did not expect him to make an immediate impact. But coach Luke Fickell and strength and conditioning coach Brady Collins chatted on the sidelines at practice that Gardner would eventually become a threat once he gained weight and seasoned himself.
They were both happy to get it wrong when, in Gardner’s fifth game of his rookie season, the cornerback recorded four tackles and an interception that he returned for a touchdown against Central Florida, the top team in the American Athletic Conference at the time. TD changed the course of the game and the conference. The Bearcats didn’t lose a single game to the UFC during Gardner’s college years.
“It was a big moment,” said Alec Pierce, a former Cinci teammate and current Indianapolis Colts player. “He has such a star mentality. He loves to be the center of attention and he really shines in it. He just took over from there.”
Weight was still a problem. But Gardner, now 6ft 3in and 200lbs, ensured it was much less of an issue than the coaches thought. He had a breakthrough in his freshman season despite weighing no more than 165 pounds that year.
Fast forward to the spring before Gardner’s junior season, which turned out to be his last year of college. Gardner and Collins watched the 2021 NFL Draft separately, and Collins sent the quarterback a text with an ESPN graphic showing the top cornerbacks selected: eighth overall pick Jaycee Horne and ninth overall pick Patrick Surtain. They weren’t your typical NFL quarterback. They were taller, like Gardner, but had the rare speed, agility, jumping ability, and strength required for the position. The graphics showed a new era of oversized athletes in position.
Collins wrote, “Your numbers are all in line with those top two first-round picks. Your speed is very close. your vertical.
Gardner replied, “Body weight.”
Collins said, “You’re damn right.”
They knew what they would be focusing on as they prepared for the 2021 collegiate season and the 2022 NFL Draft. Gardner needed to gain weight if he wanted to tick the same boxes as Surten and Horne. So he went to work.
“He was like a freshman again,” Collins said. “He made extra sets of things [in the weight room]. He really got into it, he loved it, he became an absolute grinder in the gym. Once he started applying this mass, all she did was strengthen everything in him. He has obviously gotten stronger. Well, he also became incredibly faster.
Gardner established himself as the best cornerback in college football in his final season in college. He was so special that he was selected higher than Surten and Horn the year before. No, Gardner didn’t play in the SEC like Surten or Horn did. However, he completely changed the nature of his defense and, in turn, the attack of the enemy.
“You can drop all your covers from him,” Tressel said. “The bottom line is that you knew, especially in a crisis, that no one was going to throw like that. So you could almost ignore that half of the field in your coverages and in your circuits. And then obviously another aspect of this is not to play with someone over the top. So you can be stronger against running.”
Recipients, of course, recorded receptions on Gardner. But Pierce, who entered this year’s second round draft, said he was relieved to see Gardner shut down so many receivers in the conference. In 598 college career snapshots, the cornerback has thrown no touchdowns and a Pro Football Focus passer rating of 35.3.
“I love seeing other people go through what I go through every day,” Pierce said of meeting Gardner in training. “I wasn’t locked up like this, but it’s definitely a little different. It’s a tougher look.”
Alec Pierce in training against Gardner Sauce
RJ Young is joined by former Cincinnati WR Alec Pierce as he shares what it’s like to compete every day in practice against two of the nation’s top defensemen last year, Sauce Gardner and Kobe Bryant.
When most cornerbacks allow the ball to be caught, they say they must have a short memory. Tressel said that was not the case for Gardner.
“It was more like he viewed it as ‘you’re lucky,'” the Cincinnati defense coordinator said. “And he was going to up his game. So I don’t really know if that made him mad or just made him take another step… He knew he wasn’t going to [let it] happened again.”
Since joining the NFL, Gardner has made an important discovery: “All is well.” He has yet to win the starting quarterback spot, instead rotating for DJ Reed, Michael Carter and Bryce Hall during joint practices against the Atlanta Falcons.
During pre-season games, with Reed holed up to prevent injury, Gardner started alongside Hall on the outside. In the 27 preseason snaps he played, Gardner didn’t see a single PFF goal. The digital scouting service gave it a reach rating of 70.4, which is a very respectable number.
There’s no doubt that after Hall allowed a couple of touchdowns in preseason Week 2, Gardner will rise to a starting role in the regular season opener. His eagerness to learn and his strong performance on the field clearly endear him to his coaches.
“He’s the kind of guy who constantly collects information and then runs back to the locker room and writes it down,” Ulbrich, the Jets’ defensive coordinator, said. “He’s just creating this database right now. You get it once and now it’s ready for it.”
Sauce seems poised to make an impact on the Jets in his freshman year, as he did as a skinny college freshman.
Before joining FOX Sports as a reporter for AFC East, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and the Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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