Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is well-deserving of the likely top-five selection he’ll get come Thursday’s NFL Draft. The former Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback never allowed a single touchdown in his college career. In terms of measurables, he’s also been noted for his massive wingspan (which is taller than his height). His play during his final season in Cincinnati earned him consensus All-American honors. It’s an impressive resume.
With a top-four pick, which is well within reach, Gardner would become the highest draft pick to ever come out of Cincinnati, beating out quarterback Greg Cook, the hometown hero the Cincinnati Bengals selected fifth-overall in 1969. Many mock drafts even have teams like the Philadelphia Eagles moving up to pick Gardner as high as No. 2 overall.
Gardner might be from a team from a Group of Five conference (well, for now), but he has film against Alabama. He also played in a College Football Playoff game — two things that can’t be said for this year’s Ohio State roster.
What does having a player from another Ohio school get drafted early mean for Ohio State? Not a lot at the moment. There’s no trend right now as it’s a single data point. No one is arguing that Cincinnati is surpassing Ohio State.
However, the formula is interesting, and the fact Luke Fickell is the coach of the Bearcats is not lost on anyone. Urban Meyer (with Fickell on his staff) built an absolute machine during his time as head coach in Columbus, with top recruits winning championships, becoming top draft picks themselves and inspiring the next round of recruits to join the Buckeyes. That’s positive reinforcement if we’ve ever seen it.
There’s no denying that the Ohio State program was down last year, but this weekend looks to be just as typical of a draft as Ohio State has seen in recent memory, with the likes of Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave projected to be taken in the first round.
When it comes to competing with Cincinnati, one of the reasons Ohio State has had such a historical advantage is that it was the only major program in the fertile recruiting ground of the state of Ohio. Contrast that, for example, with Michigan or Oregon on a small scale or California and Texas on a much larger one.
The situation is not a dire one, but Ohio State is no longer the only program in consideration within the state borders for many top recruits, especially with Cincinnati moving to a different, albeit weaker, Power Five conference in coming years. Perhaps the best comparison from an in-state recruiting perspective will be the state of Iowa, which is divided between the Big Ten’s Iowa Hawkeyes program which has a distinct advantage over the Big 12’s Iowa State Cyclones (to be sure, Ohio-native Matt Campbell has done an outstanding job in building the Clones into a winning program, but everything from annual recruiting rankings to head-to-head results near and far favors the Hawkeyes).
When it comes to the competitive advantage, there will of course be players choosing between Cincinnati and Ohio State. In particular, they will be the three- and four-star in-state prospects that Meyer and, now, Ryan Day have swept up with such seeming ease in recent years. These players might be looking for different things, and Fickell’s pitch of a program on the rise – and one which will be in the Power Five soon – might resonate more with a subset of them. There’s also the fact it’s a lot tougher to even get on the field as an Ohio State player than it is as a Cincinnati one, which, while keeping the four- and five-star recruits in Columbus, might impact many three-stars who simply want to see the field. .
The advantage the Buckeyes hold will likely not abate anytime soon. In particular, it’s hard to imagine NIL deals benefiting players from UC en masse as much as those from Ohio State.
Further, even with the anticipated high selection of Gardner from Cincinnati, no one is ripping the title of Defensive Back U from the Ohio State program anytime soon. It wasn’t that long ago that Denzel Ward, another consensus All-American, was the fourth-overall selection by the Cleveland Browns. It was only slightly before that when we saw players like Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker taken in the first round – of a single draft.
Of course, Cincinnati is on the rise. As much as we’d love to see an Ohio State cornerback going in the top five, it’s refreshing to see a Group of Five program getting recognition. While going to a school like Alabama or LSU (or Ohio State) might be a better predictor of future draft status, it’s much cooler to rise above the fray and be the underdog story everyone is rooting for come draft night.
There will always be a few notable players from less than notable schools who get taken early. Even in this year’s draft, players like quarterback Malik Willis from Liberty and offensive lineman Trevor Penning from Northern Iowa are projected to go in the first round. Even Cincinnati’s own quarterback, Desmond Ridder, could be an early pick.
There are even more notable players who end up having great NFL careers. Heck, on the note of defensive backs, Kenny Moore II, the Pro Bowl corner from the Indianapolis Colts, went to Valdosta State. While being from a major program can help get players in the door in the NFL, it’s no guarantee of success.
Of course, two of last year’s Pro Bowl cornerbacks were from Ohio State. Once again, that edge the Buckeyes hold isn’t going away – but it will need to be sharpened against a rising in-state competitor.