For UL senior linebacker Ferrod Gardner to be named as the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week after Saturday’s win over Iowa State is an impressive feat.
Made even more so because he is just the second Ragin’ Cajun to earn such a national distinction, following Tyrell Fenroy in 2008.
But when you also consider Gardner’s difficult offseason, the award takes on heightened meaning.
“I’m just blessed to be in this position,” Gardner said. “Lord knows the amount of time and work I put in to be in this position. To have these awards come with the team and how we played on Saturday, it’s just a great feeling. It’s a blessing.
“I was very excited to go out there with my brothers and execute and play a really great team at their place. We really went out there and executed and we came out victorious. That was the best take from the whole weekend.”
After UL’s historic 31-14 road win over No. 23 Iowa State to earn a spot in the Top 25 itself for the first time since World War II, it’s the …
Gardner was taking a pit stop during a team meeting when graduate assistant coach Nico Johnson showed him the news.
“He showed me on his Apple watch,” Gardner said. “I was like, ‘Stop playing,' because me and him joke around a lot — we kind of have that really close relationship.”
But Johnson quickly convinced Gardner he wasn’t joking.
“It really hit home,” said Gardner, who had nine tackles, a sack and two quarterback hurries in the 31-14 over the then-ranked No. 23 Cyclones. “I was really thankful and I was just really surprised. Then (outside linebackers) coach (Austin) Armstrong mentioned it in the meeting room. I was just really happy. My guys were happy for me. It was just a great moment.”
The award was the second major moment of Gardner's chaotic 2020.
Shortly after he technically ended his collegiate career with the Cajuns with the LendingTree Bowl win over Miami (Ohio), UL coach Billy Napier informed Gardner an appeal would be made in hopes of him gaining a sixth year of eligibility because he didn’t see any action in 2017 after off-field issues.
With three wins over the Big 12 on Saturday, Monday’s weekly Sun Belt head coach news conferences were likely among the most fun versions yet.
“I just felt like it was another opportunity to better my game and better myself as a person,” Gardner said. “So I definitely wanted to do it.”
In order to do so, however, Gardner required shoulder surgery to be ready for the fall season. The late-April surgery presented a few unexpected obstacles.
“I had a lot going on with rehab with my shoulder,” Gardner said. “The process was very long. Sometimes, I would be unsure about the recovery process and when exactly I would get back because of the pain I was dealing with and the weakness I would have in my shoulder.”
Gardner did not know he would be back for the start of the season. Once training camp arrived in August, he missed valuable practice time but playing in the season opener became more realistic.
“So his ability to lead — he’s overcome that shoulder surgery — getting back and being able to participate for a couple weeks, that was huge,” Napier said. “The fact that he stayed engaged throughout the time he was injured with a new defense, a lot of new concepts” made his return possible.
With the 6-foot-2, 220-pound outside linebacker, mastering the mental side of the game was key.
Sure, there were big plays that played a huge role in UL’s road upset of No. 23 Iowa State.
“My preparation was the best thing for me,” Gardner said. “Meeting a countless amount of times with coach (Patrick) Toney and coach Johnson and coach Armstrong, watching film and going over personnel and trying to figure out those tendencies and those certain keys in the game where I can figure out something and it clicks and I know exactly what the play is. I think that was the biggest thing for me in the game. I was able to play fast and react fast. That helped me a lot.”
As if a national award wasn’t enough, Gardner’s Cajuns earned a No. 19 national ranking in the AP poll.
“It was great for this team, this program and this university as a whole,” Gardner said. “I think a lot of people at this university pushed behind the football team and it’s good to see us ranked. The world is finally noticing that we’re a really good team, we’re playing really hard and we’re playing for each other. I think it’s good that we’re finally getting some recognition.”
Thanks to the extra year, Napier is now counting on Gardner reaching his full potential.
“Ferrod’s always been a guy we felt like could be an exceptional player,” Napier said. “Ferrod’s got good size. He’s really got good twitch. He’s an elusive athlete that runs well, and he’s very intelligent. Ferrod is very articulate, he’s a great communicator and he’s got a little charisma about him.”
Napier also credits his new position coach and teammates for Gardner’s fast start.
“You’ve got to give credit a little bit to Austin Armstrong — a first-year outside 'backer coach,” Napier said. “I think he’s made a difference there in Ferrod’s game. And don’t forget, we’ve got really good players in front of Ferrod.
“You throw Tayland Humphrey in there in the middle. All of a sudden, it becomes a little easier to get off of those blocks and make tackles. Good team defense and Ferrod was a huge piece of that puzzle Saturday.”