At the end of Sunday’s practice Chauncey Gardner-Johnson took a wildcat snap and went running. He zigged and zagged avoiding defensive players and ran up the sideline. He was caught and dragged down by the back of his jersey awkwardly. Ultimately he was fine, but it didn’t look good and with Gardner-Johnson’s decision to declare for the NFL Draft already made, it could have been disastrous.
Chauncey declared shortly after the season but in his declaration letter he clearly stated that he would play in the Gators’ bowl game. It’s becoming more common for players electing to leave early for the NFL Draft to skip their bowl game. Just Monday night Stanford running back and former Heisman Finalist Bryce Love announced he would skip the Sun Bowl against Pittsburgh in order to focus on preparing for the draft. Nobody would have blamed Gardner-Johnson for skipping the bowl game. He has a son on the way, he had a great season and he feels that he’s ready for the next level. To him it was never an option to sit out.
“I came in early and the guys that came in, they’re still playing. Me just saying I’m not going to play, even if it was like a lower-level game, not a New Year’s Six bowl, I still was going to play with my team,” he said. “I started something with them. It’s out of respect given to me and all the respect given to them. We worked hard together, so it’s something that I value. I’m not going to give up on nobody. I started something, I’m going to finish it.”
Gardner-Johnson had a good freshman year but ended with a bang. He recorded his first interception against FSU that season and was named the MVP of the Citrus Bowl when Florida beat Iowa that season. His sophomore year had ups and downs. He was forced to play out of position due to injury and then a lingering shoulder injury of his own affected how he was able to perform on the field. This season he came back with a vengeance. He allowed just 25 receptions on the 335 snaps he played in coverage this season with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, and two pass breakups.
The position he played this year, nickel (Florida calls it Star), has also become more valuable in the NFL with the league putting more emphasis on passing. Brian Poole went undrafted but started in the Super Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons after excelling at nickel at Florida. Duke Dawson was a second round draft pick in 2018. Gardner-Johnson played it as well as either of those, especially blitzing and against screens.
“Just talking to guys in the NFL, if you look now the three-wide receiver sets, they’re probably in those now as much as we are in college. So what that means is every team up there is going to be a match team and play with three corners. So your ability to play inside adds value to yourself and what you can do,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Gardner-Johnson. “So it’s certainly something that’s going to be advantageous to him to have done and it’s definitely a trend in the league right now.”
Despite his father warning against it Gardner-Johnson can’t help but peek at mock drafts. By “peek” he means he looks at them almost daily to see where his name is being projected. That doesn’t mean his attention isn’t on Michigan. It’s been a season long and yearlong maturation for him. It started with a new coaching staff and a new dedication throughout the whole program.
“Check your egos at the door. Last year we didn’t really care,” Gardner-Johnson said. “You gonna get your stats, you gonna do this, do that. This year is more of we’re playing for each other.”
He also has a son on the way. While he said that the impending birth of his first born didn’t affect his decision either way he’s excited to be a father.
“Even if I didn’t have my son on the way I still would have gone,” he said. “One thing in life that I’m focusing on is being a good father to my son not a good football player to my son.”
Now Gardner-Johnson is left counting down practices and moments left with his teammates. He says it hasn’t really hit him that he only has one game left but unlike a lot of other players in his position he still has that. One more opportunity to put on his collegiate helmet and go out with his teammates to represent their university.