Detroit King coach surprised, proud of Sauce Gardner’s rise to top NFL Draft pick

Detroit News

Detroit King coach Tyrone Spencer will be watching the NFL Draft on Thursday night from his living room, looking on with pride to find out where his former player, Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, will be picked.

Gardner is arguably the top cornerback in this year’s draft, along with LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr.

“I’ve talked to him a couple of weeks ago and he’s just excited and blessed for the opportunity to get drafted and start a new venture in the NFL,” Spencer said.

When asked if he ever thought Gardner would be a first-round pick, Spencer replied: “No, I’ve never seen that. I thought he’d get drafted and play, didn’t think that he’d be a top 5, top 10 pick though.”

Gardner played receiver for King until his junior year, when he played corner due to an injury and showed his talent.

“… He was able to handle his own (at cornerback) and then as the season continued, he got better, took his cornerback duties serious and really studied,” Spencer said, “then ran track in the spring and you could see how much he got better his senior year, only gave up one touchdown pass.”

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Gardner was ranked No. 41 on The News Blue Chip list coming out of high school in 2019, behind a few of his King teammates, including safety Marvin Grant (Purdue), quarterback Dequan Finn (Toledo) and linebacker Rich Miller (Buffalo).

Sure, Gardner was a three-star player coming out of King, but ranked as the 163rd-best cornerback nationally by 247 Sports Composite.

Gardner recently completed his junior season, helping Cincinnati reach the College Football Playoff, getting a key interception in a win over Notre Dame early on in last fall’s journey.

Gardner has all the measurables to be an elite corner too, 6-foot-3, 190 pounds with 4.41 40 speed and long arms (33½ inches) to make him strong in press coverage. The two-time All-American never gave up a touchdown in coverage during his college career.

In a story with The News in September before Gardner’s junior season, he said “I feel I’ve become a better leader and defensively my footwork has gotten better. I’ve gotten tremendously stronger and that’s something I’ve always wanted, to get bigger because I’ve always been the smallest, lengthiest due on the team.”

That’s right, Gardner arrived at Cincinnati at 6-foot-1 and 155 pounds, found himself No. 5 on the depth chart before getting his chance and making the most of it, returning an interception 16 yards for a TD in a 27-24 win over Central Florida in Week 5, then getting another Pick 6, this one a 62-yard interception return for a score in a 46-43 win over East Carolina, finishing the season with 31 tackles, eight pass breakups and three interceptions to earn first-team All-AAC honors.

More: The dichotomy of Sauce Gardner, Detroit native, top NFL prospect

Gardner had three interceptions his sophomore season, then another three this past fall while being the leader and shutdown corner on a defense that ranked No. 1 nationally in pass-efficiency allowed.

“I went to a practice when they were in camp this past summer and it was like, ‘Wow, this dude is huge,’ really so tall and strong,” Spencer said. “It was really good to see him. He’s doing great for himself, stayed clean, stayed out of trouble and that’s really good for him.

“It’s remarkable that he never gave up a touchdown pass in coverage because he’s played teams like Georgia, Notre Dame and Alabama; just speaks volumes of the type of player he is. He had a good showing against Notre Dame, but when he really got a chance to play against Alabama and show what he could do, that’s when everybody realized how good he was going up against an NFL guy (Jameson Williams) and to shut that side of the field down, that’s when everybody knew just how good he was.

“This will be my fourth guy in the NFL, so I definitely take a lot of pride in that, knowing that I coached this guy and was able to help get to him, so it’s a great feeling.”

Gardner had the opportunity to watch and go up against Ambry Thomas every day in practice. Thomas went on to play at Michigan and was drafted in the third round (No. 102 overall) by the San Francisco 49ers in last year’s NFL draft.

Former King players Avonte Maddox, a fourth-round pick by the Eagles in 2018 starts at slot corner, getting in on 73 tackles last season while forcing two fumbles and intercepting a pass, and former Michigan cornerback Lavert Hill was on the practice squad of the 49ers.

Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield vividly recalls Gardner when King defeated Muskegon 41-25 in the Division 3 state championship game back in 2018 at Ford Field.

“He played DB and as a receiver he scored on a tip slant pass, our freshman corner was covering him and he caught a tip that was on a slant, our corner jumped it and it bobbled and he made the catch,” Fairfield said of Gardner’s 22-yard TD catch off a pass from Finn to give King a 28-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.

“He played like that (elite player) when he was in high school. He was an electrifying player, a game-changer. He played both sides of the ball. It’s a credit to him and how hard he works, and it just carried over to what he’s done at Cincinnati.”

How ‘Sauce’ Gardner got his name

Gardner said in March story in The News he got his nickname from a little league coach when he was 6 years old, and it’s stuck ever since. Speaking at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, 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 a smile. “When I’m on and off the field, I make sure I’ve got the sauce. That just keeps me going.

” … “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.”

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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