As Cincinnati ascends the college football ranks, their best player is one of the most underrated in all of college football. Cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner has had a prolific career for the Bearcats as a shut-down corner. Immediately as a freshman, he was able to lock down opposing WRs and showcase an NFL future.
Gardner was a 3-star recruit out of Martin Luther King High School in Detroit, Michigan, playing Wide Receiver and Cornerback. He was a first-team All-State selection at CB and committed to Cincinnati during his senior season.
As a true freshman, Gardner played his way onto the field early. Eventually, he earned a starting role and showcased some big playability. Of his 3 interceptions as a freshman, 2 were returned for touchdowns. He allowed to TDs all season and was the only true freshman on the All-Conference first team.
As a sophomore, Gardner was the #1 CB and was lockdown. He allowed no touchdowns all season and had even improved his physicality at the line of scrimmage. He had 3 interceptions in the first 4 games and even had the only sack of his career. The Bearcats’ undefeated regular season was primarily due to Gardner’s defensive play of locking down a side of the field.
Now, as a junior, Gardner has kept his elite play going. He continues to allow 0 TDs, even against teams like Indiana and Notre Dame. Quarterbacks are actively not passing in his direction (and being punished when they do). He has all the makings of a top NFL CB with the career he has had.
Gardner’s strength lies in his physicality with opposing defenders. It is rare to see a college CB be able to jam at the line of scrimmage and throw any sized wideout off of their timing. Not only does he do that, but his recovery from his jam point to coverage is top-notch. Receivers don’t have time to use press coverage to their advantage, even if they can beat it. Often opposing QBs will think their WR has beaten Gardner’s press only to throw a pass where he is defending it well.
Gardner’s Football IQ and technique contribute to his outstanding coverage. He can pick up on an offense’s tendencies and formations, leading to knowledge about what routes receivers will run. You can often see him cheat a route he knows is coming. He also is superb at reading QBs eyes and picking up on progressions. Add in good technique in his low hips and tight backpedal, and it becomes difficult to beat him. Now, seeing two games against potential NFL WRs in Ty Fryfogle and Kevin Austin is no fluke.
The big fear with Gardner in the NFL is overall athleticism. He won’t be confused with a track star, and likely won’t test outstanding at the NFL Combine. That lack of deep speed is always a worry for NFL teams, especially as receivers are trending smaller and faster. But as successful young CBs like Cameron Dantzler and Rock Ya-Sin have shown, high-end athletic ability isn’t everything. The right system could make Gardner an NFL star.
Garnder currently sits at CB3 in my 2022 Rankings, but I feel he will fall a little further than that in the NFL Draft. I imagine the top of the 2nd round is where he will be selected and end up being an outright steal. The consistent college success Gardner has had at a challenging position (HIGHLY needed in the NFL) shows all it needs to about what kind of success he will have at the next level.