ORLANDO - When there’s a future NFL cornerback on the gridiron, it’s oftentimes difficult to make passing plays to that cornerback’s side of the field. With good technique, scheme, and play calling, taking advantage of that talented cornerback can be achieved.
The Bearcats will trot out Ahmad Gardner against the Knights. He’s one of the best, if not the best, cornerback in the country. Should UCF challenge Gardner? Yes, but there needs to be proper steps when making a concerted effort to go directly at Gardner and his immense skills.
Here’s a look at two areas that Gardner does well before defining what can work against him and the Bearcats.
Vitals: 6’3”, 200 pounds
Hometown: Detroit (Mich.) Martin Luther King
Best physical attribute: Length; Gardner’s arms allow him to deflect passes other cornerbacks simply cannot reach. He’s also consistently redirecting wide receivers away from their intended route path with his length and his physical approach to the game of football.
Gardner will play bump-and-run coverage by lining directly in front of the wide receiver, and as soon as the football goes to the quarterback, Gardner will attack the wide receiver. Any wide receiver with average or less technique for defeating press coverage will be in trouble against Gardner. He’s also a savvy defender.
Gardner will play press coverage and then, at the last moment, bail into a soft zone. Timing when he moves away from the wide receiver can prove to be the biggest factor for Gardner, because if done correctly, there’s no pre-snap adjustment for the quarterback and wide receiver to make.
It’s much more difficult to adjust after the snap of the football, and that’s what Gardner wants his opponents to do. Cincinnati coaches its cornerbacks very well, and Gardner’s savvy play adds to the overall cornerback development he receives from the Cincinnati coaching staff.
Despite all of Gardner’s talents, the following would be four good ways to attack him.
There is not a cornerback alive that truly wants to take on offensive linemen and tight ends. Although cornerbacks might deny it, much larger players running towards them with the intent to bury them into the turf will not be the first item on their wish list of plays to go up against. Gardner is no exception.
Early in the game, UCF needs to run screens to the usual suspects -- Johnny Richardson, Mark Antony-Richards, Amari Johnson, and Ryan O’Keefe -- amongst several talented skill position players. When those screens take place, it’s absolutely essential that UCF offensive linemen and tight ends hammer Gardner with their blocks.
Football is a game of attrition. Make sure Gardner knows he’s playing football from the early stages of the game all the way through the fourth quarter.
Perimeter Running Plays
This would be similar to the screens, and then there’s the added bonus of trying to tackle someone as big as Antony-Richards size, which would be about 215 pounds. Much like with the screens, that’s not the first choice for a cornerback.
The same can be said when UCF quarterback Joey Gatewood enters the lineup. He's a big man at 6'5", 220 pounds. When he runs towards the sideline, he can lay a lick on Gardner and most other defenders.
Gardner deserves to be called a physical player, but he’s not a linebacker. Each time he needs to tackle a UCF player that’s one more body blow he will absorb.
Stacked Wide Receiver Formations
Because Gardner does an excellent job of playing press coverage, there’s no question UCF needs to be creative with its wide receiver formations. That’s where a stacked formation can come into play. It’s simply what it sounds like, too.
Two wide receivers line up one in front of the other. Take a primary player like O’Keefe and stack a tight end or wide receiver in front of him. That will help eliminate press coverage, and it further helps create screens and quick releases so that quarterback Mikey Keene will be able to deliver the football quickly.
Gardner’s aggressive nature could allow for a double move to be successful. When there’s speed on the field with a player like O’Keefe, UCF simply must find ways for him to get behind the secondary, Gardner included.
For that matter, Gardner could follow O’Keefe around all game long. Do not expect Jaylon Robinson to play against Cincinnati, so O’Keefe’s production will be vital. Even if it’s just one play of O’Keefe going by Gardner and catching a pass for 50 yards, it might be the difference in the game.
With proper timing and play calling, there’s an opportunity to connect Keene to O’Keefe during an out-and-up route, stop-and-go route, or something similar.
Gardner is one of the nation’s best overall players, and must be respected. That does not mean UCF can just give him the side of the field he lines up on. The Knights must be physical with Gardner all game long, and find a way to take advantage of his aggressive playing style.
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