The redshirt freshman from Douglass, Ga., is enjoying learning from Heisman Trophy candidate Teddy Bridgewater and feels like he's ready whenever the coaches call his number. Gardner has played in three of the first four games – in mop-up duties – and he likes if that way.
"The coaches always tell us the backup is one play away," Gardner said. "I work at it every week, to prepare for the worst but I don't want to see that happen.
"I just try to prepare the best I can and be ready."
After two years of injuries, it's been smooth sailing for the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Gardner so far this season.
Gardner has come in and completed 7 of 10 passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns, including 5-for-5 last week against Florida International. He tossed an 11-yard TD pass to Michalee Harris in the FIU game.
"He's a great player right now, he just happens to have the best player in college football ahead of him," U of L offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "He's a great decision-maker. He has arm talent, an excellent decision-maker and the game goes very slow for him, so he's like Teddy in that regards."
But it hasn't been easy to this point for Gardner.
A standout at Coffee County High School, Gardner was a huge pickup for U of L when he committed in early July before his senior season. He had offers from Alabama, Mississippi State and also interest from Florida.
Not long after he committed, Gardner tore the ACL in his left knee on the second series of the first game of his senior season. He spent all season doing rehabilitation after surgery, but the knee still bothered him the next summer.
"I was doing therapy back home and tweaked it," Gardner said. "They thought I just broke up some scar tissue. I got up here in the summer and it just kind of started bothering me and (U of L trainers) wanted me to go get an MRI.
"I found out that it was torn again."
Gardner spent all last season on the sidelines, rehabbing the knee again. He was back doing limited work and dressed for practice when the Cardinals arrived in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl game and then participated in spring ball.
"The first time I done it, I was so eager to get back and was kind of like push, push, push," Gardner said. "The second time was a lot easier, I slowed down and listened to what everybody else said I needed to do."
Gardner "really impressed" Watson and U of L head coach Charlie Strong during fall camp and left no doubt he was the backup on this team.
"Just from spring to now, he has made giant improvements," Strong said. "It's just fun to watch him now have total command of the offense."
The first game was almost like a dream for Gardner. He played time in the 49-7 win over Ohio University – the opener – and on his first series as a college quarterback threw a 30-yard TD pass to Kai deLa Cruz.
"(The injury) was rough," Gardner said. "I was kind of down in the dumps but coming out here and getting that touchdown on the first drive, it was a really exciting experience. (The TD) made me feel good about myself and humbled me."
Several of the U of L offensive weapons, including Bridgewater, have lauded Gardner for his solid play and improvement.
Gardner said it's "hard" for him not to improve.
"We are playing football like we expected on the offensive side," Gardner said. "I get to get in there and learn from Teddy. I just try and model what he does, do my best and learn from him every day.
"It's the best thing ever to sit back and watch a guy who does it right every day. It makes your job a lot easier because you never see bad examples."
Watson said Gardner is "one talented thrower," and has said he's a "great" backup to Bridgewater who should be ready to take over when he leaves.
Gardner said he's preparing for that all of the time.
"I want to be the best I can be and better myself behind Teddy so when my chance comes, we won't skip a beat," Gardner said. "We have the best quarterback in college football now, so if I didn't learn from him that would be my fault.
"I try to prepare like every week I am going to get some reps and then when I get in there make the most of them."