CINCINNATI – The Twitter graphic featuring the best cornerback prospects in the 2021 NFL draft came to Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner’s phone on March 24. It provided a tale of the tape of the measurables of South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, including their weights, 40-yard dash times and bench press reps.
Gardner arrived at Cincinnati in 2019 with a concave chest, weighing less than 160 pounds and with no offers from either Big Ten school in his native Michigan. But after an All-American 2020 season, he found himself on the cusp of his own draft dreams. The graphic doubled as a blueprint, as Gardner played the 2020 season at 183 pounds, or 20 less than the corners he wanted to become.
Amid this sun-kissed Cincinnati football season, there’s a paradox that’s equal parts amusing and important. For a player known as “Sauce” since he got the nickname from a youth coach at age 6 – “A1 Sauce Sweet Feet Gardner” was the original — he needed to lay off the sauces to properly gain weight. Most notably, Sauce’s affinity for Wendy’s included heaping helpings of the chain’s creamy sriracha sauce.
“When I get the 4 for $4, I get like three sriracha sauces and I dip everything in it — my burger, my nuggets and my fries,” Gardner said recently with a laugh, noting that he may not have been able to change his diet if Wendy’s didn’t ditch that flavor.
When the sauce was discontinued, Sauce began to soar. He took the challenges of strength coach Brady Collins and cornerbacks coach Perry Eliano seriously, meeting with a nutritionist, training harder and meeting Collins’ goal this spring of cracking 200 pounds on his lanky 6-foot-3 frame.
Sauce’s emergence as the best corner currently playing in college football and a projected first-round NFL draft pick is also indicative of an underappreciated part of Cincinnati’s rise — the Bearcats have double-digit players on the NFL radar and could well have eight or more players selected in the 2022 draft, a number normally reserved for draft factories like Florida, Georgia and Notre Dame.
As the Bearcats continue to seize their role as the most divisive team in the country — No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and No. 5 in the College Football Playoff — there are few who’d argue their best NFL prospect. Sauce looms as the first three-and-done draft pick during head coach Luke Fickell’s time at Cincinnati and the school’s first first-round pick since 1971.
In many ways, the story of Sauce Gardner is the story of No. 5 Cincinnati — the rapid growth of the overlooked, an underdog edge forged from the journey to the top and an arrival to the elite that everyone is still adjusting to.
Power in a name
As a 6-year-old who maneuvered the age requirements to play his first organized football on the East Side Bengals in his native Detroit with older kids, the first flash of Ahmad Gardner’s potential came in an impromptu drill.
Curtez Harris, known throughout the city as Coach Tez, has a fun drill with his players where he’ll throw a ball as high and far as he can and they sprint under it. One day at practice, rambunctious young Gardner pleaded with his coach to toss a bomb and sprinted downfield after it.
Running full tilt — his arms in slalom style that Coach Tez describes as a “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” — Gardner stretched to catch the ball on his fingertips and somersaulted forward from the momentum. He held on to the ball and the moment.
“I told you I’m sweet! I told you I’m sweet!” Coach Tez recalled him exclaiming over and over in celebration.
Coach Tez, like many of Gardner’s coaches and teachers, recognized an unusual exuberance and fostered it. “To be the man,” he’d tell him, “you have to inherit this sauce.”
To get him fired up for games, he’d buy Gardner his favorite snack, Honey Buns, and issue the same motivational technique.
Coach Tez: Get your popcorn ready.
Gardner: Let’s get popping.
Gardner eventually got bestowed the nickname A1, as Coach Tez’s job included nicknames for all the Bengals — Agent O, Boobie Miles and The General among them. And after a game, sitting in the bleachers at the Brenda Scott Academy, Coach Tez complimented Gardner’s cut-back move and then blurted out: “A1 Sauce Sweet Feet Gardner.”
Young Ahmad loved the nickname, and eventually shortened it to Sauce. “That kid’s name rung bells,” Coach Tez said. “He brought excitement and fire to the game.”
For Coach Tez, the pride bursts through the phone as he sees those same sweet feet on ESPN these days. His young star inherited the sauce, and will soon be poised to pass it back on as inspiration to kids back in Detroit. And it delights Coach Tez that Gardner channeled his youth number for an A1 revival, switching from No. 12 to No. 1 for the 2021 season at Cincinnati. Just like back on the East Side Bengals.
“He’s like a statue on the East Side, they’re so proud,” Coach Tez said. “He’s done it. I’m so proud of him.
“I always predicted if A1 ever puts No. 1 on his back, it’s written.”
'Too sleek' for Big Ten, but good enough for Cincinnati
Gardner’s size didn’t always match the energy. At Detroit King High School, he’d been good enough to receive MAC offers — Toledo came first — but couldn’t nail down a full-time role as a receiver. Opportunity in the secondary arose freakishly when two teammates collided into each other in a game against rival Cass Tech and one broke his jaw.
Gardner shined in spot duty and played corner the rest of that junior season by necessity, and that spring his offer sheet began to fill up. “God worked in some serious ways,” Gardner said. “We needed somebody to go make some plays, and I ended up doing it.”
Gardner was listed as 6-foot-1 and 162 pounds on his Rivals.com page, where he was unranked among corners and considered the No. 39 prospect in Michigan. Before he could be big enough for the NFL draft green room, Gardner needed to grow into a college prospect and player. When former Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio visited Bearcats practice this spring, he couldn’t believe that Gardner, who’d blossomed into an NFL-ready player 2 inches and nearly 40 pounds later, was from Detroit.
Gardner’s older brother, Allante, shepherded him through the recruiting process. He put together a giant spreadsheet to compare the schools, listing 10 subcategories that included the school’s ranking, the number of defensive backs by year and the number of defensive backs they put in the NFL at that position.
Allante said that Sauce playing only two years of high school ball, and not finding a home at defensive back until 11th grade, hurt him in high-end recruiting. That’s ultimately why he thinks that Michigan and Michigan State didn’t offer, and then-Penn State assistant coach Tim Banks later told Gardner that Nittany Lions coaches deemed his frame “too sleek” to offer him. Gardner ended up choosing between Iowa State, Kentucky and Cincinnati.
Former UC corners coach Mike Mickens and former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman led the recruitment of Gardner, and Allante Gardner said they impressed the family with consistent actions instead of recruiting rhetoric. “Cincinnati had the most stars for the categories,” Allante said of the spreadsheet. “They didn’t do a lot of talking. They did a lot of doing and showing.”
UC coach Luke Fickell admits some luck coincided with Gardner’s evaluation, as the Bearcats were hoping to change their size profile at corner and add some length to the secondary. Why did they ultimately pull the trigger and offer a player so skinny?
“He’ll get stronger, you know two years in the program,” Fickell recalled thinking, “and maybe he’ll be able to run well enough to play a corner or safety position.”
Early in his first camp at Cincinnati, Gardner kept making plays all over the field. He barely cracked 160 pounds at the time, but Fickell still saw a longer timeline. He turned to strength coach Brady Collins in practice one day and said: “Man, this guy's gonna be good in two years, once you get weight on him.”
Gardner figured out a way to flash early, helping Cincinnati forge its reputation as the sport’s leading party crasher.
The moment when 'Sauce' emerged on college football stage
— Cincinnati Bearcats (@GoBEARCATS) November 19, 2020
The distinct pivot point for the Bearcats becoming a national power came the night Gardner introduced himself to college football. Both can be captured in one play. In October of 2019 during a Friday night matchup with No. 18 UCF, then the distinct bully of the American Athletic Conference, the unranked Bearcats trailed 16-13 in the third quarter.
Gardner, a reserve corner playing in part because UCF’s tempo necessitates substitutions, jumped a route by baiting quarterback Dillon Gabriel. He stepped in front of receiver Tre Nixon, tipped the ball to himself and sauntered 16 yards into the end zone for the defining play of Cincinnati's 27-24 upset. From there, the soaring trajectories of Cincinnati and the career of Sauce Gardner launched together.
The instincts, cunning and skill it took made it the equivalent of a, “No, no, no ... YES” shot in basketball. And that spoke to Gardner’s innate gifts. “It’s like you look back on it, and you’re like, ‘Oh crap ... how did you ... OK?’” Fickell said his face contorting through a made-for-GIF gamut of emotions as he recalled the play.
From that night on, Gardner has transformed from instinctive and flamboyant reserve to one of the most important pieces in the Cincinnati football program — as endearing as he is important. That interception kicked off a stretch of 29 straight games of Cincinnati playing as a ranked team. The Bearcats are 27-3 since that night, with just one loss in the regular season.
Corners coach Perry Eliano describes Gardner as an old soul in new-age packaging, as they play spades the night before games and Gardner is doting to Eliano’s sons, Amari and Evan. “He's got great charisma,” Eliano said. “I mean, that's the thing that the guys on that level are gonna love about him, when you're sitting down and you're like, 'Oh, I love this kid.' He just has that infectious personality.”
Gardner’s game has soared so much that Eliano admits the biggest challenge this season is “coaching him not to be bored.” Gardner lines up as Cincinnati’s boundary corner, which is where the highest percentage of throws typically go.
Most teams Cincinnati has faced this season have respected Gardner through avoiding him. That has helped the Bearcats rank No. 1 nationally in pass efficiency defense, No. 5 in passing yards allowed and No. 6 in scoring defense.
It all starts with Gardner Island staying uninhabited, as Pro Football Focus statistics rank Gardner No. 1 in lowest yardage allowed per coverage snap (0.23). “He’s one of the best I’ve seen,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn told Yahoo Sports. “He’s an elite cover guy, he’s big and he’s tall. He’s as good as you’ll see. He’ll take one side away, I’ll tell you that.”
Gardner’s statistics from this season aren’t eye-popping — three interceptions, two pass breakups, two sacks and a forced fumble. The challenge for first-year Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Tressel has been not letting opponents freeze Gardner from the gameplan by putting “a slug to the boundary,” aka their worst receiver, and having no intention to throw that way.
“We're having to do things to, especially on third down to say, ‘We’re not going to allow that to happen,’” Tressel said. “We've been matching to the field. But on third down in particular, we make sure that we can use him in a situation where he’s not going to be away [from the play].”
The talent surrounding Gardner in the Cincinnati secondary shouldn’t be overlooked. His bookend at corner, Coby Bryant, has 11 PBUs. Bryant and sure-tackling safety Bryan Cook (6 PBUs, 4.5 TFLs) have strong chances to be drafted and are perfect complementary personalities.
The Cincinnati staff allows Sauce to be Sauce, the team leader in impromptu dance moves between reps in practice. The coaches know he’ll be locked in when it matters, and Bryant makes sure that frivolity isn’t contagious.
“Ahmad is who he is,” Tressel said. “He's going to be ready to go. It’s critical that we have Coby, who's the business man, to make sure everybody else understands that, ‘Hey you can act like him.’”
How Gardner projects in NFL scouting eyes
Fickell exhibits a bit of a Roy Kent vibe, a stoicism befitting of a Dantonio/Jim Tressel disciple who attacks every day as if he’s still wearing a wrestling singlet. It’s perhaps Ahmad Gardner’s most notable accomplishment that he leads all Cincinnati players in the ability to make Fickell smile.
There are no PFF stats for stoicism penetration, but no one realizes this gift more than Gardner. “Every time he sees me, and I look at him, he smiles every time, every single time,” Gardner said, himself smiling at the idea.
There’s good reason. Fickell knows exactly what caliber of talent he has. Fickell’s career as a player and a coach has been primarily grounded at Ohio State, where he coached a handful of first-round defensive backs, from Malcolm Jenkins to Marshon Lattimore.
Fickell isn’t subject to hyperbole, nor will he ever be accused of being a prisoner of the moment. Heck, he still won’t even call Gardner by his nickname. So his assessment of Gardner resonates: “He’s the best I’ve been around, I really do think so,” Fickell said. “He’s the best I’ve ever coached.”
Along with the talent compliment, Fickell calls Gardner “the most delightful high-end athlete” he has ever been around. “Attitude-wise, practice-wise, he jokes, smiles, laughs,” Fickell said. “I think he’s really good.” He adds with a laugh: “I should now, I should definitely call him Sauce.”
There are two nuances that separate Gardner as a corner. For some corners, length can be a liability. Gardner channels it into production. “His length gives him confidence to play the ball,” Tressel said. “There's a lot of times where he's making plays on ‘perfect passes’ because of that length.”
The other is his instincts/intangibles, forged from the East Side Bengals through Detroit King and on display weekly at Cincinnati. “I don’t know if I’ve been around as many that have had the football savviness, because usually you don’t think about corner as football savvy,” Fickell said, noting that it’s not on display as much because Cincinnati rarely plays zone. “He can tell and feel it, he’s got that savviness, [he’ll say] ‘well his hips turned’ and we’re like, ‘we never taught you that.’”
There are also extreme physical gifts that have emerged as his frame filled, as Gardner tracked down UCF’s Ryan O’Keefe, one of the Knights' fastest players, on a 51-yard reverse, which blew away Malzahn in terms of speed.
The NFL is intrigued, as Gardner’s play and the Bearcats' surge have caused his stock to soar. One veteran NFL scout predicted that Gardner will be in the first round, but he cautioned that projecting him higher than LSU corner Derek Stingley Jr., who has played limited snaps the past two seasons, would still be a stretch.
One knock on Gardner will be the hit-and-miss history of lanky corners, as Tampa’s Carlton Davis III and Cleveland’s Greedy Williams will be comps. Certain systems, like those of Pete Carroll and his press man disciples, will favor Gardner as he’ll be mocked to a place like the New York Jets, Dallas or Seattle.
“Given the draft class and who he’s going against, he’s in mix for the second-best corner,” said a veteran NFL scout. “If you want a big, long press corner, you’ll eat that up.”
Another knock is a compliment — the lack of balls thrown his way this season has meant limited film. Eliano said there has been only 27 balls thrown at Gardner.
Eliano reveals that information with a hint of pride. He saw all the work that Gardner put in changing his diet and body — taking peanut butter sandwiches to class for a snack, ditching Wendy’s for steak and logging the daily discipline required to become a pro.
“That's the first time where every day, every part of every day, I had to focus on something,” Gardner said. “I feel like it trained my mind, for real, to just stay focused.”
And life came full circle. As one sauce exited his life, the opportunity for more entered. Gardner said that A1 Steak Sauce approached him about an NIL deal, but he declined because the money was limited.
Sauce and his NIL representative decided to wait. For an irrepressible player with the irresistible nickname and incandescent personality, the opportunities will flow. And the bells will continue to ring well beyond Detroit for “A1 Sauce Sweet Feet Gardner.”