This series will feature the top NFL Draft prospects with insight from the beat reporters that covered them in college. This article is just a preview of the full interview which can be heard on the Deep Slant podcast.
Name: Ahmad Gardner
Height/Weight: 6-3, 190
Hometown: Detroit, Michigan
Below is a portion of Deep Sidhu's interview with Justin Williams, who covers the Cincinnati Bearcats for The Athletic
Sidhu: When you Google him, there's a whole story about how Ahmad Gardner got his nickname. But since you've covered him, I want to hear it from you, because I think a lot of people don't know why he's called Sauce Gardner.
Williams: He got the name from one of his peewee football coaches. He kept calling him "Sweet-feet Sauce" and it just kind of developed into "Sauce" over the years. The interesting thing was he came in as this really gangly, skinny freshman at Cincinnati in the 2019 recruiting class. I mean, 150 pounds with equipment on. He was unbelievably rail-thin and even early on when he was down the depth chart as a freshman, he was not a highly-touted recruit, three-star out of Detroit. Good, intriguing prospect, but not someone that people would have guessed would be a Top 10 NFL Draft pick coming in. And he had always kind of said, 'Oh, yeah, everyone should call me Sauce' and Head Coach Luke Fickell and the coaching staff and a lot of players in Cincinnati were basically like, 'We're not going to call you that until you earn it.'
In 2019 as a true freshman, he had a big pick-six interception against UCF. It was a home game for Cincinnati, a night game. They were the underdog at the time and that put them in the lead and shifted the momentum of that game. In the post-game press conference, Luke Fickell was like, 'All right, I guess he's earned the nickname Sauce now.'
Sidhu: I love the fact that he showed up to the Combine with the bling necklace that said "Sauce" on it. I have to start with this personality because I can sort of extrapolate between all these little stories but what is he like off the field? It seems like he's pretty gregarious, like what you want your cornerback to be personality-wise.
Williams: This is honestly, it's a credit to him. He has the perfect mix of like brash, swaggy cornerback and also, humble and determined and hardworking and it can be hard to kind of mesh those two together. I think when you see a cornerback named Sauce and he's wearing the bling and has this aura about him, you kind of assume like, all right, I get who this guy is and you shouldn't judge him purely on that, though. If you sit and talk with him, he's really smart. He was a really good student in school, had like a 3.4 grade point average or something like that. I don't even want to sell him short if it was a little higher than that, but just also really hardworking. And a lot of that goes to the culture that Cincinnati has built. Coby Bryant, who I mentioned, the Jim Thorpe Award winner, is the other cornerback for Cincinnati, who's going to get drafted this year as well. He was a couple of years older than Sauce and had a huge impact just on him in the weight room and kind of off the field and work ethic and things like that.
In terms of confidence in his ability, there are very few that are on Sauce's level. You know, there are plenty of like quotes or examples you can point to that he's had over the years in college. But the one that I love the most, he just said a couple of weeks ago at the Combine, he didn't allow a single touchdown pass in coverage at Cincinnati over his three years. And a reporter asked him at the Combine, 'What are you going to do when you give one up in the NFL, a touchdown?'
And his response was, 'I don't plan on giving one up.'
And that encapsulates Sauce in the sense that he totally believes in himself. He has that confidence and that swag, but he also has the work ethic and kind of the personality traits to back all that up.
Sidhu: What can you tell us about the strengths of his game? Give us a little snapshot of his style.
Williams: Like I said, because he was so kind of raw and skinny when he came in, I honestly think as a freshman he might have been sixth on the cornerback depth chart during fall practice of his true freshman year. He just performed really well, kept getting better, kept getting more opportunities and it really shifted that UCF game I mentioned when he had the big pick-six. UCF runs a high up-tempo offense and so they were kind of just rolling in cornerbacks to try to keep everybody fresh and he made that play and just really kind of announced himself. Ever since that point, he became like the lead boundary cornerback, the guy going against the No. 1 receiver on the other team for the past three years. So, he was always in that toughest cornerback position on the field. He's really long. He's gotten a lot stronger. He plays press-man coverage and he's really aggressive. And the reason he's able to do that is because he can make up for it with his length and he has really good speed. He ran a 4.41 at the Combine.
Sidhu: There was a lot of talk at the Combine about Gardner's measurements and really unique measurables for cornerback. He's got the size, he's got the length. He was undersized coming in as a freshman, but now he's up to 190. What can you tell us about how he put on that weight and how the measurables will really help him make that transition in the NFL, the fact that he's got those physical traits already there.
Williams: A lot of credit goes to Brady Collins, who is Cincinnati's strength and conditioning coach. I think he recognized obviously everyone knew Sauce was going to have to get bigger because of how skinny he was. But I think Collins recognized you have the frame that can actually support playing at 200 pounds. He played at like 205 at Cincinnati this past year. I think he dropped a little bit for the Combine, probably had people telling him it would help him run a little bit faster. I've talked to Collins a little bit during this process and he was like, 'He's going to play at 200 in the NFL' and that's what he was at all of last year.
So definitely, he has this freakish frame and athletic ability that he can be 200 pounds. He can be 6-3, he can have these long arms, he can still run a 4.4 40-yard dash. Everyone talks about his ability to cover and not allowing touchdowns. Obviously, I was kind of impressed, especially as a junior, how well he did tackling. He didn't have a ton of opportunities; Cincinnati's defense was really good. But whether it was him blitzing or there's a couple of times in the run game where he would come up and, you would expect a guy like that to maybe do 'Ole defense' as a cornerback and he didn't hesitate to stick his nose in there.