The dichotomy of Sauce Gardner, Detroit native, top NFL prospect
Indianapolis — Even during his NFL Scouting Combine media session, the two sides of former Cincinnati cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner are present. Ahmad is soft-spoken, friendly and thoughtful. Then there's Sauce, showing up every time Gardner flashes a smile, revealing a glistening, presumably diamond-studded grill.
"When I'm in my little calm mood, I would say it's just me being Ahmad," Gardner said. "But the Sauce is within me. So I'm always Sauce, but I got to know when to flick the switch up and when to turn it off."
There's no question which side has shown up on the field Saturday after Saturday and soon to be Sunday after Sunday, with Gardner in contention to be the first cornerback selected in April's draft.
Before he landed at Cincinnati, Gardner was a two-way stud for Detroit Martin Luther King. In his final high school game, Gardner caught a 22-yard touchdown pass, helping King upset Muskegon in the Division 3 state championship. And as a cornerback, he surrendered a single reception in league play that season.
That stingy play carried into college, where in three seasons with the Bearcats, he remarkably didn't allow a single touchdown. That's why the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder is expected to come of the board in the first half of the first round.
The Sauce nickname, that's been around for a bit. He got it from a little league coach when he was 6 years old and it's stuck ever since. If there was an origin story, it's been lost, but Gardner has put his own spin on what the name has come to mean to him.
"What I can say it means is a level of confidence," he said, flashing that smile. "When I'm on and off the field, I make sure I've got the sauce. That just keeps me going."
Obviously, Gardner wasn't an unknown coming out of high school, so it's a wonder why such a talent didn't end up at one of the local universities. As it turns out, he strongly considered Michigan State, but when a former high school teammate, Donnie Corley, was accused of sexual assault at the school, Gardner thought it was best to distance himself.
"Had a lot of interest from them, but there were some things with one of my other teammates, so I didn't want to go there and they paint a picture on me, like I'm going to be a direct reflection of him," Gardner explained.
But Gardner has never forgotten his Detroit roots and he credits his mother, Alisa, for keeping him out of trouble and giving him every opportunity to succeed.
"Detroit, it's not a place that anybody can just live," Gardner said. "You've got to be strong-minded or you're just going to fall by the wayside.
"...Growing up in Detroit, didn't really have anything, but what I did have was a mother who always made the impossible possible," Gardner said. "Things that I wanted, she would give me a hard time when I'm asking for it. ... She's my hero."
On the cusp of a significant payday from the NFL, Gardner is thrilled to return the favor. He informed his mother a couple of months ago she no longer needs to work.
"That was just a blessing, because I always told her growing up, 'You ain't got to work no more,'" Gardner said. "When she paid for football camps, she was always like, 'Do you got to go to this camp? Do you got to?' I was like, 'Mom, come on, I just want to be able to show the coaches what I can do.' She would always end up paying for it, so I could showcase my talent. And it got me here."
At Cincinnati, Gardner thrived playing press-man coverage. He has less experience playing zone, something he'll certainty be asked to do occasionally regardless of where he's selected. He's looking forward to showing he can do that just as well.
If there's an area of concern with his game, it's that his physicality could lead to penalty issues. He drew plenty of flags in college and NFL officiating is notably more aggressive with defensive backs. That's why Gardner has been working on reducing his dependency on his hands while training at EXOS this offseason.
"You got to be feet-first," Gardner said. "I'm blessed with length — God has blessed me with length — but working on feet more, so I don't have to use my arms as much. But I'm going to make sure I use them to my advantage."