GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Through his freshman season last year, Chauncey Gardner Jr. established himself as one of the most intriguing young players on Florida’s defense — and also perhaps the loudest.
Gardner’s unmistakable swagger and brash bravado were as apparent as his impressive speed and obvious playmaking instincts.
So it was a stark contrast to see Gardner speak with reporters last week for the first time since winning Outback Bowl MVP honors in January and for the first time on campus since joining the Gators.
He continually deflected questions about whether he sees himself at cornerback, where the Gators lost two potential first-round NFL draft picks; at safety, where he finished last season or at nickel. It was one stock answer after another, about just wanting to work hard, learn and help his team win.
Finally the question had to be asked. Had Gardner suddenly dialed down his personality?
“Just listen more and just be open to everything instead of just trying to go at individual battles. Like Coach Mac says, just go out and compete. That’s all we’re doing,” he said, adding that he had a conversation with new defensive coordinator Randy Shannon about being more of a listener than a talker.
“Me and Coach Shannon sat down, he told me this year, ‘You’ve got to listen more. You can’t be more of a vocal guy because vocal guys don’t make it far, so just open your eyes, pay attention and do what you’ve got to do,'” he said. “I’m listening to older guys, listening to coaches more and just going out and having fun.”
Head coach Jim McElwain was asked about this new, subdued Gardner on Monday and claimed he hasn’t noticed.
“No. He must have been having an off day. Is that what it was?” McElwain said, drawing laughs from the room. “I just love his energy, man. He just likes to play and likes to practice.”
This spring Gardner has been practicing all over Florida’s secondary and his precise role for 2017 remains unclear or undecided — though, it will no doubt be a significant one.
As injuries mounted for the Gators down the stretch last season, Gardner took over as a starter at safety for the final three games and racked up 17 tackles and 3 interceptions. He nabbed 2 of those picks in Florida’s dominant Outback Bowl win over Iowa, returning one for a touchdown to earn MVP honors.
“It gave confidence to my teammates. They seen we’ve got somebody back there that can do it so they trusted me and I’m trusting them,” he said last week.
So where does he want to play in 2017? It doesn’t matter, he reiterated to a variety of questions.
“Wherever I fit in best, it’s where I’m at. … I’m just having fun right now with spring, getting better and learning new things,” Gardner said.
Florida won’t really know how all the pieces to its secondary puzzle best fit together until the team’s six incoming freshmen defensive backs arrive this summer.
The Gators loaded up on cornerbacks to restock the position with Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson heading to the NFL. Senior Duke Dawson is locked in to filling one of those cornerback voids, but the other could be Gardner or one of those incoming freshmen.
“Honestly, a DB is a DB,” fifth-year senior safety Marcell Harris said. “We feel like the safeties can play corner and corners can play safety. A DB is a DB. They can play all around just like everyone else. We lock down and we cover guys.”
New Florida defensive backs coach Corey Bell said he’s also not focused just yet on attaching any specific position to Gardner.
He’s confident Gardner will have a big role for Florida in 2017, wherever it is.
“With Chauncey, as long as he’s on the field we’re a better football team, whether that is safety or corner,” he said. “As long as he is on the field we’re in a good situation.”