UL linebacker Gardner jumped at chance for sixth season
When Ferrod Gardner got official word he had been approved for a sixth season of eligibility, allowing him to play one more year for the Ragin’ Cajuns, he had no doubt.
Gardner was in, all the way.
“I just felt like it was another opportunity for me to go ahead and better my game and better myself as a person,” he said this week, “so I just definitely wanted to do it.”
Wow are the Cajuns ever glad he did.
Gardner, UL’s starting Will linebacker, had nine tackles including a sack in last Saturday’s upset 31-14 win at then-No. 25 Iowa State, a victory that vaulted the Cajuns into the national rankings themselves, appearing at No. 21 in the Amway Coaches Poll and No. 19 in the AP Top 25.
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The showing resulted in Louisiana Sports Writers Association state, Sun Belt Conference league and – get this – Walter Camp Football Foundation national Defensive Player of the Week honors for the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder from Trotwood-Madison High in the Dayton, Ohio, area.
Cajuns coach Billy Napier, for one, wasn’t surprised by what he and an ESPN national audience saw.
“Ferrod’s always been a guy we felt like could be an exceptional player,” said Napier, whose 1-0 Cajuns visit Georgia State for their ESPN2-televised Sun Belt opener Saturday morning in Atlanta.
“He’s very intelligent. Ferrod is very articulate. He’s a great communicator. He’s got a little charisma about him.”
Yet he also has pop that plays well with the pizzazz.
Teamed with new starting Mike linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill, who had a team-high 10 tackles against Iowa State, the two led a Cajun defense that allowed UL not just to hang with but also eventually beat the Big 12’s Cyclones.
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Teammates attest to the fact the two have punch behind the polish.
“I can tell you this: There’s no better feeling than going against those guys every single day in practice,” said Shane Vallot, UL’s starting center.
“Those two guys, personally – and we have a lot of other guys in the position room that are good players also – they work hard every single day. They’re always going to give you the best look. They’re gonna hit you too.
“We block those guys every single day,” Vallot added, “and I can tell you this: Going against Ferrod, you’re challenged every day. They’re the reason why we are getting better every day.”
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'A GUY I REALLY PLAY TO'
There also is a reason ex-UL defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Ron Roberts, now the DC at Baylor, had Gardner playing the Will next to 2019 top-tackler Jacques Boudreaux, a senior last season, and that new Cajuns DC Patrick Toney, also UL’s safeties coach, kept him there alongside McCaskill.
“Ferrod’s good in space,” Napier said.
“I think Ferrod, from a coverage concept standpoint, is a really loose-hip guy than can come to balance, can gather. A good open-field player.
“A lot of it is structurally on defense you try to position your players to have success, and you try to let them do what they do best, and I think Lorenzo in that similar role as Jacques had … (is) that type of player, a little bit bigger body.
“But if we had to move Ferrod over there to play ‘Mac,’ or Mike,” Napier added, “he could do it, for sure.”
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Defensive play-calling responsibility inherently falls to the Mike, but it sounds as if Gardner and McCaskill have been tag-teaming in that regard as they get more and more time together.
“Ferrod is a great leader,” UL outside linebacker/defensive end Joe Dillon said. “He always makes sure we get lined up properly every play.”
“Those two (Gardner and McCaskill) are capable of a lot,” added Kris Moncrief, who backs up McCaskill on the inside but also can bounce outside. “Most of the linebacker room looks up to them, because basically they help everybody with everything.”
In this case, evidently, two voices are better than one.
“Both those guys actually are really good communicators,” Napier said.
“They’re both intelligent. They’re articulate. It’s just a matter of learning the material and having the confidence. We talk about communication: early, loud and often; clear, concise and confident. And I think both those guys are good examples of that.”
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Both love the pairing, especially after the two played so well – Gardner had six tackles, McCaskill five – in 11-3 UL LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio) last season.
“We’ve just got to continue to grow that bond and be able to play with each other on a string,” Gardner said. “We’ve just got to know where each other are and be able to play with each other and trust each other.”
The two, it appears, really do have each other’s back.
“That’s a guy I really play to,” McCaskill said in the preseason, “and I feel like it’s somebody I’ve been wanting to get on the field with for a long time.”
'HE STAYED ENGAGED'
For Gardner, it really has taken a long minute to get from where it all started to where he is now.
Yet his showing at Iowa State almost never happened.
Gardner walked on and redshirted as a freshman at SEC-member Missouri in 2015, then spent a 67-tackle 2016 season at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College.
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He joined the Cajuns under the staff of ex-UL coach Mark Hudspeth in 2017 and was having a strong preseason camp before tearing a tendon in his left foot – a season-ending injury that prompted not one two surgeries and resulted in his ultimately being granted the sixth season.
Gardner tallied 50 total tackles over 13 games in 2018, including eight against Tulane at the Cure Bowl in Orlando, then started 12 of the 13 games he played in a season ago, when his 47 tackles, which ranked fifth among team leaders, included 11 in a November win at South Alabama.
Now he’s picked up where he left off under the guidance of Toney and new inside linebackers coach Austin Armstrong, a UL graduate assistant under Hudspeth in 2017 and Napier in 2018 who spent last year as a quality control assistant at Georgia.
“I have similar responsibilities (this year compared to last),” Gardner said.
“But with Coach Toney, he definitely has his own spin on this defense. So he has his certain flair where he puts me in certain situations that I wasn’t in last year.”
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Gardner loves it, and already the added responsibilities – whatever they are – are paying big dividends.
Back in April, however, one of Gardner’s shoulders, surgically repaired earlier in the offseason, wasn’t responding the way it should.
He had concerns.
“Sometimes I would be unsure about the recovery process,” he said, “and when exactly I would get back, because of the pain I was dealing with and the weakness I would have in my shoulder.”
Gardner was limited when preseason camp opened in early August.
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“He’s overcome that shoulder surgery,” Napier said, “and to get him back and be able to participate for a couple weeks, I think, was huge.
“He stayed engaged throughout the time he was injured, with a new defense, a lot of new concepts. You’ve got to give credit a little bit to Austin Armstrong. … I think he’s made a difference there in Ferrod’s game.
“And don’t forget we have really good players in front of Ferrod,” Napier added. “You throw Tayland Humphrey (UL’s new starting nose tackle, a transfer from Florida International) there in the middle, all of a sudden it becomes a little easier to get off of those blocks and make tackles.”
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'BLESSED TO BE IN THIS POSITION'
It shows, and so does plenty of personal improvement.
During his end-of-the-season exit meeting, Gardner indicated he was told he needed to work on his footwork. He needed to be more physical. And, in order to become all the Cajuns want and need him to be, he needed to be less casual.
Gardner heard it all.
Then he also heard for certain he’d get that sixth season and a chance to do all that.
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Gardner said he was in the bathroom when Nico Johnson, a UL graduate assistant coach working with the Cajuns’ linebackers, informed him he had won the Walter Camp national weekly award.
It’s a big deal.
“I was like, ‘Stop playing,’ ” Gardner said. “He was like, ‘No, this is real.’ ”
Johnson had proof.
It was right there on his Apple Watch, which for Gardner really was satisfying to the core.
“I’m just blessed to be in this position,” he said.
“Lord knows the amount of time and work I put into being in this position, and to have these rewards come with the team and how we played on Saturday – it’s a great feeling.”
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