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Sauce Gardner - Deep Dive
☀️ Good morning.
I haven’t done it for a while so I just wanted to take a moment to thank all you TJW subscribers. The TJW readership has really grown over the last month and that’s thanks to the support you all show. Every single like, comment, share, recommendation, and coffee bought is noted and appreciated, thank you!
🐯 A quick note on Former Bengals’ DT Larry Ogunjobi who has spent the past two days visiting the Jets. He agreed to a contract worth $40.5 million with $26.35 million guaranteed with the Bears within hours of Free Agency starting, but he ended up failing his physical and the Bears decided not to sign him. Larry did have right foot surgery following the Bengals victory over the Raiders, and he is coming off his best year with 7 sacks and 40 pressures, largely playing as a 3-tech. He would be a fine addition to the Jets defensive line if he's healthy, and I expect it won't cost close to that $40.5 million contract he signed in Chicago a couple of months ago.
Today we’re going to get straight back into our deep dive series, you voted for who you wanted to see next, Sauce Gardner is up. Let’s go!
Before we get into the early years, there was something I needed to check off. Why is Ahmad Gardner called Sauce? I’ve known about Sauce since his freshman year in Cincinnati, but never thought to research why he’s called Ahmad ‘Source’ Gardner.
Gardner has given two reasons for the nickname. The first one originates from his early football days as a running back: "I had the moves. I was playing running back. I was saucy with the juke moves" - He was just 6 years old at the time and playing for the Eastside Bengals, he juked a defender causing him to collide with another defender.
He credits his football coach Curtez Harris for the name and one moment that stuck when Harris pulled him aside and said, "To be the man, you have to inherit this sauce."
The other is more on the head as Gardner explains "I would get like three Sriracha sauces and dip everything in it - my burger, my nuggets, and my fries." - I like the first one a little more, but is his draft night necklace is anything to go by, he still enjoys a little sriracha sauce.
Sauce is almost a different persona, a way of switching it on when the lights are at their brightest, when asked what that nickname means to him he had a really interesting answer:
"My personal meaning is a level of confidence. When I'm on and off the field, I make sure I've got the sauce. That just keeps me going," Gardner said. "When I'm in my little calm mood, it's just me being Ahmad. The Sauce is within me, so I'm always Sauce. I have to know when to flip the switch up and turn the switch off."
When the Jets took Gardner with the #4 overall selection, some were surprised. Most were adamant that it would be Ikem Ekwonu or one of the pass-rushers, referencing the signing of Reed, the performance of Hall, and the lack of need in a Saleh-based system for a shutdown cornerback. People saw Sauce as a man corner, and the Jets as a zone team, but if you listen to Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh enough it becomes clear that it was always going to be Sauce.
The last time the Jets took a cornerback in the first round it didn’t end very well. Dee Milliner was selected 9th overall in the 2013 draft and the Alabama product was a huge disappointment, even when he could stay healthy he never put the dominant performances on tape expected of a top 10 pick.
Sauce became the first-ever cornerback taken in the top-5 by the Jets and just the 4th corner taken since the turn of the Millenium (Milliner, Wilson, and Revis being the other three). He also became the first Cincinnati Bearcat to be drafted in the first round since defensive lineman Bob Bell in 1971.
The Early Years
Ahmad Gardner was born in Detroit Michigan on August 31st, 2000. He was playing football almost as soon as he could walk and attended Martin Luther King High School in Detroit where he played on both sides of the ball, as a receiver on offense and as a corner on defense.
An outstanding athlete on both sides of the ball, Gardner was named one of the top-5 players in the state of Michigan prior to his senior season, a season in which MLK high won the Division 3 State Championship, thanks in large part to Gardner’s performance on offense. He finished that championship game that was played at Ford Field with 4 catches for 126 yards and 2 touchdowns, one of those touchdowns came to start the 4th quarter, putting MLK High up 28-17, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Sauce wasn’t lacking for offers coming out of Detroit as a 3* recruit, in total he had 17 schools fighting over his signature, including Indiana, Syracuse, and Iowa State. But Sauce had a feeling about Cincinnati saying: "I had a dream that I got drafted from Cincinnati and I gotta make that reality and accomplish my dream," - Well that’s the first dream accomplished.
Although he was a standout on both sides of the ball, defense was always going to be the route to success, and going to Cincinnati under the defensively-minded Luke Fickell made a ton of sense. Not only did Fickell gain his experience at Ohio State under Jim Tressel, but he also got to work extensively with Urban Meyer as well, a lot of pedigree. His head coach at MLK thought he made the right choice.
"In that league, they will definitely need that," King head coach Ty Spencer stated.
"They’re getting a good defensive back. I think with Ahmad it’s more about his potential being unlimited. Where he’s been able to develop I would say, him playing the position since October till now, he’s way better in coverage than he was last season. They’re getting a long-bodied corner that could have been in the ACC or potentially the SEC but felt comfortable with Cincinnati and those guys over there."
It’s not easy to come into college and dominate straight away. It’s your first time in a professional athletic environment, you have your studies, you have to adapt to looking after yourself and you have to learn a playbook that is almost certainly more complex than anything you’ve seen before. All of this makes Gardner’s freshman season of 2019 all the more amazing.
To start with, Gardner wasn’t sure if he’d see the field as a Freshman. He thought the Bearcats may plan to redshirt him due to his slender frame:
“I surprised everyone,” Gardner said. “I didn't think I was going to be able to just get on the field like that because I was so small. I think they had plans to redshirt me, but I didn't know. I just used to be out there just playing, just listening to the older guys. I came in, I didn't do too much talking; I just listened to the older guys, and they helped me get on the field. The corner group started trusting me, so that just helped the coaches believe in me.”
"He walked in here Day 1 and said, 'Call me Sauce,' " UC defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman said. "I said, 'Nah. You do something, I'll call you Sauce.' "
Sauce played 600 snaps as a Freshman, PFF graded him at 88 with a coverage grade of 90.2. He was targeted 58 times and he allowed just 23 receptions, that’s a 39.7% reception percentage allowed as a true freshman. He gave up just 360 yards, 137 of those coming after the catch, he allowed 0 touchdowns and picked off 3 passes with 8 passes defended.
He was named First-Team All-AAC and was heralded for multiple momentum turning plays, including pick-sixes against UCF and ECU. It was that pick against UCF which was perhaps one of the best plays he made throughout his entire college career. He baited the 18th ranked Central Florida into throwing a quick hitch route against his coverage, knowing they were likely to take it he jumped the route and returned the ball 16 yards for the score, a score which gave the Bearcats a lead they would hold.
Gardner became just the 5th player in Bearcat history to return two interceptions for a touchdown in the same season and the first to do so since Mike Mickens in 2007.
Following that performance senior TE Josiah Deguara said “I think he earned it tonight,” in relation to this nickname with Head Coach Luke Fickell adding “That self-proclaimed nickname may actually be a nickname,”.
His instant impact was noted on the field, but also off it with defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman saying:
"He's a guy you just want to be around," Freeman said of the younger Gardner. "There's certain people you meet that just give you energy, man. We call them energy-givers, energy-providers. He's one of those guys who has it."
Sauce’s reputation started to precede him, teams just started avoiding his side of the field. Despite only starting 6 games as a freshman, he was targeted 58 times. He started 9 games in 2020 as a Sophomore and was targeted just 40 times. The only reason he didn’t reach his goal of having more interceptions in year two than year one is simply that teams stopped throwing his way. He allowed just 17 completions, 221 yards (90 after the catch), and 0 touchdowns while recording 3 INTs and 6 passes broken up, pure domination.
"My work ethic, I'm increasing that more than I had going into my freshman year," he said. "Everything I did last year, I'm doubling it (this year) so I don't have that 'sophomore slump.' "
In my research for this piece, a reoccurring theme has been the work ethic of Gardner. Yes, he’s naturally very talented and blessed with outstanding length, but so many players have had the same tools to work with and never made it in college football, let alone the NFL. There is a desire in Gardner to be great, he doesn’t want to be good, he wants to be the best there is.
"I had an offensive coordinator that I ran into on the road (while) recruiting," Freeman said. "He was actually a guy from Memphis. He said, 'Hey, man, we played a lot of different teams. We played Penn State in a bowl game, and that No. 12 you have did the best job in coverage, better than anybody we played against.' That helped me understand, hey, this dude is pretty special."
During this 2020 season, the Bearcats catapulted into college’s top 10 rankings, something Cincinnati hadn’t done in a decade, and it was largely based on their ability to shut teams down. Only 4 of the 10 teams they faced scored 20 or more points, which is a low score for college football. They finished the season as the AAC champions with a perfect 8-0 record, they then beat Tulsa in the AAC Championship game before narrowly losing to Georgia 24-21 in the Peach Bowl, a game that Gardner missed due to a back issue.
Garden’s mere presence in that 2020 season allowed the Bearcats to do more things on defense as safety James Wiggins explains:
"Let's say we got a one-on-one matchup and they like throwing the fade to the boundary," Wiggins said. "Usually, the post player, I'm going to lean that way. But when you see Sauce over there, you're like, 'Oh, he got it.' We ain't worried about it. I'm going to play the field. You ain't about to beat us on a one-on-one matchup with Sauce."
If you thought teams were avoiding Gardner in 2020, his 2021 stats indicate that they were really ignoring him last year.
In 14 games played he was targeted just 37 times, that’s an average of around 2.6 targets per game. He allowed 122 yards (83 after the catch), 0 touchdowns and picked off 3 more passes with 3 pass breakups. The longest completion he allowed was 17 yards and that includes 14 yards allowed against Alabama in the college playoff semi-final. In the AAC championship game, he allowed 15 yards, so a total of 29 yards allowed in two post-season games. Phenomenal.
He may have weighed in at 190lbs at the combine but he often played heavier during the 2021 season. Strength coach Brady Collins challenged Gardner to hit 200lb’s in 2021 and Gardner took that and ran with it, realizing that heavier doesn’t mean slower or less agile:
“It took a lot of dedication by me because I always just like eating junk food, Wendy's 24/7,” Gardner said. “I spend so much money on Wendy's, it don't make no sense. I feel like I'm able to play faster even though I put weight on. I feel like I've gotten bigger, faster and stronger which is good, and it helped my technique at the line of scrimmage and down the field.”
Knowing there was nothing left to prove, Gardner decided to forgo his final year of college eligibility and enter the draft, a decision which was supported by his head coach who said of Gardner’s time at Cincy:
"I want to say thank you to Ahmad and his family for everything he has poured into the University of Cincinnati and our football program," Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said. "He will go down as one of the greatest Bearcats ever to play here and certainly one of the most talented, accomplished and competitive players I have ever coached. It was fun to watch Ahmad's growth on and off the field during these last three seasons. His physicality at the cornerback position and ability to shut down his side of the field allowed our defense to do things we've never been able to do before and made everybody around him better. Ahmad was an integral part of taking this program to the next level and I look forward to watching him do the same for whatever NFL team selects him this spring. Ahmad will forever be a Bearcat and I'm grateful to be his coach."
2️⃣0️⃣ Sauce didn’t allow more than 20 yards in any game he played in 2021.
🔒 Over his 3-year career at Cincinnati he didn’t allow a single TD
☝️ In single coverage this year, he allowed 5 receptions on 20 targets with 2 INT
⛔ 31.5 - That’s the passer rating when throwing at Sauce in press coverage since 2019
🐾 Didn’t allow a single red-zone catch on 68 coverage snaps in 2020/2021 combined
🔴 For his entire three-year career he allowed 1 catch on 115 red-zone coverage snaps.
Video Breakdown 🎥
Length + Sticky Coverage
I had so many examples of Sauce using his length to either make INT’s or force pass breakups, but wanted one that showed his length and his coverage ability in man coverage. If you watch enough you‘ll see a few consistent themes, he spends most of his time in the back pocket of receivers and he seems to have an ability to know which route is coming. Here’s a great example of his coverage, his length, and his instincts.
One aspect that was brought up post-draft was that Sauce is dominant in man coverage and the Jets play a lot of zone. The truth is that sauce is dominant in man or zone coverage and games are won on 3rd down and the Jets play a lot of man coverage on third down. Having someone like Sauce who can mirror the best receivers and not give an inch opens up the countless possibilities for Ulbrich and Saleh.
I had a couple of examples with him in coverage here, but I wanted to show another aspect of his game that isn’t talked about very often and that’s his ability to rush the passer off the edge. He had 3 sacks in 2022 and 5 total pressures on just 11 pass rush attempts. You don’t blitz a corner frequently but when you do it helps if they have the speed to get home, Gardner absolutely has that in his arsenal.
Don’t get me wrong, Sauce isn’t the cleanest tackler in the draft class but he is a physical tackler. He is about as willing a tackler as you’ll ever get at cornerback, he constantly puts his nose in and more often than not he makes the stop. Here is facing Jameson Williams in the college football semifinal.
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