Wednesday August 10, 2022

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The play was described to Perry Eliano over the phone, how former star pupil Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner sprinted alongside teammate D.J. Reed on a 100-yard interception return last weekend in a New York Jets practice. With about 3,000 spectators cheering, Gardner celebrated Reed’s touchdown with — brace yourself — a back flip.

Punch up the Allen Iverson sound: We’re talking about practice, not a game.

Eliano chuckled when he heard about Gardner’s theatrics.

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“He’s very much a showman,” said Eliano, the University of Cincinnati cornerbacks coach in 2020 and 2021. “We always used to say, ‘Practice reps become game reality,’ so don’t be surprised if you see that same guy when the lights are really on.”

For a success-starved franchise desperately in need of swagger, Gardner — the No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft — could be the special sauce. While the Jets have a handful of seasoned veterans and a few promising young players on defense, they don’t have a true identity. Truth be told, they haven’t had one since the Rex Ryan days, circa 2009.

The former Bearcats All-American isn’t close to being a finished product, but he has the personality, nickname and talent to change that. Former All-Pro safety Jamal Adams could’ve been that guy for the Jets, but he was traded before the 2020 season. Since then, the Jets are 31st in points allowed. Now they’re counting on veteran free agents and the Gardner-led draft class to lead a defensive revival.

“He’s got juice, he’s got swag and he’s got that infectious personality that people gravitate to,” said Eliano, now on the Ohio State staff. “He’s just got that aura about him. Some guys just have that It.”

Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich doesn’t believe his unit was shy on confidence last season, quickly adding he’s always willing to add to the supply. As he explained with a smile, “It’s like Coke is really good, but Coke with a little something in it is better. You know what I’m saying?”

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And he wasn’t talking about a lemon.

In 2021, the Jets’ defense was Coke Zero, finishing 32nd in the two major statistical categories — yards and points allowed. In the offseason, they upgraded the secondary, drafting Gardner and adding Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead in free agency. That’s an $80 million renovation to a unit that made a shockingly low number of interceptions — five.

Reed and Gardner have the potential to become their best cornerback tandem since Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie more than a decade ago. Reed said he’s impressed with Gardner’s “eagerness to learn.” Players and coaches say he asks a lot of questions, as he did in college. As Eliano noted, Gardner never had a “too cool for school” attitude.

He’s always one of the first players on the practice field every day; Sauce doesn’t do fashionably late. On the first day of training camp, he and quarterback Zach Wilson were the first on the field, talking through the practice script.

“With rookies, you kind of have to talk to them a little more and get on them,” Reed said. “I don’t really have to say much to Sauce because he’s a pro.”

At Cincinnati, Gardner learned “you have to be a pro before you are a pro” — the mantra Eliano preached to his players. He gave them pro tips on everything from how to watch film to how to dress. It molded Gardner into who he is. Beneath that youthful exuberance is a serious-minded athlete who embraces coaching. Though it all, his confidence never seems to waver.

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“I’m just like a good-luck charm,” Gardner said. “Every team I end up on, there’s always something unique about it. This program reminds me of Cincinnati a lot. I think this year we’re going to make a huge change.”

The Bearcats averaged 11 wins per season during Gardner’s three-year career. In the three years before his arrival, the average was six. He made one of the most memorable plays of the 2021 season. Against Central Florida, a run to his side broke free for a big gain. Gardner never gave up on the play, sprinting 50 yards to chase down the ball carrier for a touchdown-saving tackle.

Here’s the crazy part: Cincinnati was ahead, 35-0.

“A really, really cool moment,” Eliano said.

Jets assistant defensive line coach Greg Scruggs, a former Bearcats assistant, said he gets goose bumps just thinking about that play. No one in the organization knows Gardner better than Scruggs, who worked in the school’s player-development department during his recruitment. His background with Gardner was helpful during the pre-draft process, as he was able to share intel with the scouting department.

Gardner arrived on the Cincinnati campus as an unheralded recruit, ignored by the Power-5 schools because he was a pole-thin player with limited experience at cornerback. He was a 5-foot-10, 140-pound wide receiver at Detroit’s Martin Luther King High School before switching to corner as a junior and sprouting to 6-foot-3.

“Everybody told him he was too skinny, so that put the chip on his shoulder,” Scruggs said. “We took our shot, thinking he was a diamond in the rough.”

Funny story: As a freshman, Gardner wanted to be known as “Sauce,” so he went online and changed his academic profile in the university’s computer system, making “Sauce Gardner” his official school name. The coaches had no idea until a routine meeting with the academic counselors. When a counselor mentioned “Sauce Gardner” in the meeting, the coaches looked at each other, puzzled.

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“Everybody goes, ‘Who? Sauce? Who is Sauce? You mean Ahmad?'” recalled Scruggs, who still calls him Ahmad.

Gardner got the nickname as a kid in Detroit, when his youth coach called him “A1 Sauce Sweet Feet Gardner.” Eventually, it was shortened to Sauce. That he demanded the nickname as a college freshman showed tremendous self-confidence. When he came off the bench in his fifth game as a freshman and scored on an interception return to swing the game, the Sauce Era was born.

“That swag you see, it’s all the time,” Scruggs said. “That’s who he is. I thought it would die off at some point, maybe his freshman year, but here we are, four years later, and it’s the same person.”

Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said Gardner reminds him of his former New Orleans Saints teammate Marshon Lattimore, a Pro Bowl cornerback. The similarity: Supreme confidence.

“There isn’t a (receiver) who puts fear in them,” Rankins said. “That’s the thing that jumps out.”

Gardner still hasn’t won a starting job — he’s alternating with incumbent Bryce Hall — but it’s only a matter of time before he prevails. He still hasn’t made a highlight-film play at practice, but that, too, is coming. For now, he has the back flip.

“I hadn’t done a back flip since I was like 12 years old,” he said. “It looked kind of bad, but it was in the moment.”

If Gardner plays to his potential, the fan base will flip for him.

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