Chauncey Gardner has arrived. In the last three games the freshman cornerback recorded 17 tackles and three interceptions, and on Monday, Gardner was named the Outback Bowl MVP.
"It goes to the guys up front, D-line, Joey Ivey, Cece Jefferson, Keivonnis Davis, the linebackers, and the coaching staff because they put me in good position to make plays, so it's a credit them for the MVP," said Gardner. "It's really on them. I feel like it should be a team MVP, but I mean, I thank those guys because without them none of this was possible."
Gardner helped Florida beat Iowa 30-3 after recording two interceptions, including a pick six against the Hawkeyes.
"It was really what we game planned because we knew they was going to go two by two and three by one," said Gardner about the coverage against the Big Ten team. "Quarterback [C.J. Beathard] , he's a good quarterback. He's pretty accurate. Older guys back there were talking around, like hey, he's coming this way, he's coming this way, he's coming to the left. He's a one-look guy, and we jumped on him early. First pick six, really just is a credit to the D-line again because they put up phenomenal pressure, and the linebackers. And the second interception, it was just keep your eyes on your reads because you never know if the pocket breaks down, and again, the D-line got more pressure, caused an error throw, and we picked it off and just got another one."
Many can call this win a turning point for Jim McElwain and the Florida program. The Gators were coming into this game on a two-game skid, losing to both Florida State and Alabama in blow out fashions. UF did not want history repeating itself, and they did not want another bowl game disappointment.
"It just felt like we just got to get our swagger back and our confidence because every game you may never know what happens," said Gardner. "So we were just going to go out there and compete at the highest level, and everything is going to fall in if you just do your job, and that's what [interim defensive coordinator] Coach [Randy] Shannon, [defensive back] Coach [Torrian] Gray, Coach D-Bass has preached all week, just do your job, do your job, do your job, and everything will fall into place."
The Gators defense had its fair share of adversity. Shannon was without 13 defenders prior to kickoff on Monday and plenty of young players and even walk-ons were called into action.
"Anybody can play in our defense if you just listen to the older guys. They pass the torch, like Coach Mac said,"said Gardner. "All week we prepped our eight guys, listen we may be young, some of you guys probably stepping up in roles you never had to play before, just go out there and have fun. Basically our motto was to go out there and have fun. Older guys like J.D., even though he wasn't playing, as long as he was saying, keep your head up, keep your head up, because you're going to make mistakes, and things are going to happen. So it's just the game of football, and we just went out there and had fun and played our game."
Although Florida's defense was certainly young, their lack of experience was in no way a disadvantage. The Gators held Iowa to 226 yards of total offense, which is the fewest total yards in Outback Bowl history, held them to three points in three red-zone attempts and forced three turnovers. With so much talent on the depth chart returning, Gardner is hopeful for the future.
"Just feel like this is the place to be great. He [McElwain] wouldn't tell us anything false, just told us if you come in you've got to do this, you've got to do that," said the freshman cornerback. "It's not going to be easy, it's a journey, it's a long season, you're going to have some nicks, you've just got to come in, put your mind to it and keep pushing, and that's all we did. Not just for me, just for everybody in the recruiting class like Khai, Rayshad, David Reese, Josh Hammond, and Felipe [Franks]. We've just got to go out there and compete at the highest level no matter what the circumstances - just go out there and have fun.
Florida has a "great future," added Gardner. "A lot of young guys. But we're not worried. We'll go out there and compete and get at it in the off-season, just go out there and have fun like we're doing now and just enjoy this one while we can, because you've got to think about it, Tuesday, Wednesday starts and we're right back at it."
If it was up to Gardner, the season would start tomorrow.
"I want to get out there right now. I feel good, but I think -- it's a long journey, long off-season, got to get our bodies back right and focus for next year and got to prepare."