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At Cincinnati, Detroit King's Ahmad Gardner takes his place among nation's top cornerbacks

David Goricki
The Detroit News

The calendar has flipped to September with fall closing in and with that the start of the college football season.

And while the Big Ten and Mid-American Conference seasons have been pushed back to spring, Detroit King’s Ahmad Gardner can’t wait to take center stage as the playmaking cornerback for No. 20 Cincinnati.

Gardner feels fortunate to be competing in the American Athletic Conference, which has decided to give football a thumbs-up in the COVID-19 pandemic world, joining the ACC, SEC and Big 12, while players from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and MAC will be watching on TV.

Ahmad Gardner (12) celebrates his interception return for a touchdown during the second half against UCF last season.

Cincinnati will host Austin Peay Sept. 19 (noon, ESPN) without spectators at Nippert Stadium.

“I’m real excited, I feel like I need to play and have put a lot of energy into it so I’m real excited to have a football season,” Gardner told The Detroit News. “If it wasn’t for my freshman year my mindset would probably be a lot different than it is now. I was just blessed that I was able to have a freshman year like that and it will probably definitely impact my sophomore season.”

Gardner will try to build off the momentum from his play of a year ago. In fact, it would be hard to find a player whose stock rose as much as Gardner’s in 2019.

Gardner had a 34-yard TD reception to help Detroit King upset No. 1 Muskegon 41-25 in the Division 3 state championship game in 2018.

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Then, Gardner moved on to Cincinnati, where he found himself way down on the depth chart to start his true freshman season, then opening some eyes in Week 5 with an interception return in a 27-24 win over a Central Florida team that had won 29 of its previous 31 games and was the class of the AAC.

A few weeks later, Gardner had another pick-six, this one on a 62-yard interception return, to give Cincinnati a 43-40 lead with 4:38 remaining in what would be a 46-43 win over East Carolina. He also had three tackles and two pass breakups, leading to his first start in Week 8 against Connecticut.

Gardner would go on to have one more interception in a loss to Memphis, a team Cincinnati would lose to again, 29-24, in the AAC championship game. The Bearcats went on to defeat Boston College 38-6 in the Birmingham Bowl to finish 11-3 and ranked No. 21 in all three major polls.

Gardner finished the season with 31 tackles, along with 11 passes defended, eight pass breakups and three interceptions, allowing no touchdowns and a 39.4 passer rating against him, a reason he earned All-AAC first-team honors.

“I wasn’t that prepared when I first got there because I wasn’t starting,” Gardner said. “I just watched the people that were in front of me and learned what I needed to do to be where they were at and get in their shoes.

“I was like the fifth corner on the depth chart, then had the luxury to be able to play with the twos and potentially be a one. I was always that dude in high school and little league, so being that far down on the depth chart really humbled me a lot.”

Ahmad Gardner takes the ball down the sideline for a touchdown following an interception against East Carolina last season.

Gardner said the UFC game was the highlight of his season.

“UCF’s offense was fast tempo and it welcomed me to college football,” he said. “It was a game-changer. The whole atmosphere right there, the crowd, welcomed me to college football. Their receivers gave me a run for my money and I was able to not back down when it came down to guarding them one-on-one because that’s what I prefer to play. That was just a great jump start for me.”

Gardner’s birthday was Monday and Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell wished him a happy birthday on Twitter.

“He’s a down-to-earth type of guy,” Gardner said of Fickell. “He can relate to his players. He knew I had potential and that’s really why I had a shot to play. He’s not a wishy-washy coach. Every day he comes with the same business. He doesn’t switch up. He’s a genuine coach and I truly enjoy playing for him.”

How much has Gardner’s stock risen? Well, USA Today says Gardner is “arguably the best returning cornerback in the country.” Lindy’s ranked Gardner the No. 10 cornerback in the nation.

Cincinnati – with 16 of 22 starters returning – was picked to finish second in the AAC preseason media Poll released Tuesday, by a 204-201 margin to Central Florida.

“This can be a championship team,” Gardner said. “We’re all on the same page. We’re going to go as far as the seniors take us.”

Gardner feels sorry for his former teammates at King who won’t be playing this fall.

“I’ve talked to guys like Rich Miller (Buffalo) and Marvin Grant (Purdue) and I feel bad for them because they’ve worked their tails off and can’t showcase their talent this fall,” Gardner said. “They tell me they’re going to watch me play this season.”

Gardner credits his coaches at King, led by head coach Tyrone Spencer, for preparing him well for college ball.

“We used to (condition) a lot at King, so I feel like it prepared me, it got me in shape, and my corner coach, Coach Shepherd, and Coach Spencer helped me on my technique side of things,” Gardner said. “Those two people helped me get to where I am today.”