Gardner gives Gators versatility, experience at back end of defense

Charlie Gardner Jr.
Florida cornerback Chauncey Gardner Jr. (23) appeared in all 13 games last season and started the final three contests against FSU, Alabama and Iowa. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

Yes, Chauncey Gardner Jr. can still be heard barking on the practice field, and he definitely doesn’t plan to stop jawing with the opposition on Saturdays.

But the Gators sophomore defensive back is a year wiser, and he understands his time to lead UF’s secondary is approaching quickly.

“A year ago, I was just another guy on the team, a freshman. Just learning stuff, learning things. But this year, it’s more of a dialed-in, tone-it-down, and just let it come to me,” Gardner said. “This is a big year for anybody on our team. Not just for me. For whoever is on the field, you have to think about the mentality. You never know when your number is going to be called.”

As a freshman out of Cocoa, Gardner appeared in all 13 games for the Gators last season and contributed 32 tackles and three interceptions. Considering his strong showing in sparse playing time, it was expected Gardner would spend fall camp focused solely on securing one of Florida’s starting cornerback roles.

But after redshirt senior safety Marcell Harris was lost for the season last month with a torn Achilles tendon, the Gators have relied on Gardner’s flexibility to maintain continuity in the secondary, which includes playing him at safety, a move that may continue once the season arrives.

“Based on bodies available right now, and obviously back there with Quincy (Lenton) going down (last year) as well, just for depth at safety,” coach Jim McElwain said of Gardner’s position status. “Plus, what it does is really allows us to take a long long at those young guys and see who’s going to be one of those guys.”

McElwain doesn’t intend to deviate from the formula that made last season’s defense successful. Just like Gardner was thrown into the fire as a freshman, UF’s secondary anticipates incorporating several of the six freshman defensive backs the team signed this season. Already, Gardner has been impressed with the glimpses he’s seen of the freshmen, who he believes have arrived with the ideal mindset to contribute this season.

“Donovan Stiner, Brad Stewart, Shawn Davis. Really the whole young corp of defensive backs, when they came for (organized team activities), they had the mentality that it’s time to play,” Gardner said of the true freshmen. “And before Marcell went down, we told them like, if you mess up just go out there and have fun. And that’s all they’ve been doing out there is competing, playing for each other, really. And that’s the ultimate thing you want to see from younger guys. If they can compete for each other, then fall camp is going to be a breeze. They’re going to realize how easy football can be once you dial in and just focus up.”