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It has become a new trend in the college football world, players declaring for the NFL Draft are opting out of playing in their bowl games to avoid injuries. That wasn’t the case for star junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
The future NFL player explained his decision to play two weeks before the bowl game.
“I came in early and the guys that came in, they’re still playing. Me just saying I’m not going to play, even if it was like a lower-level game, not a New Year’s Six bowl, I still was going to play with my team,” he said. “I started something with them. It’s out of respect given to me and all the respect given to them. We worked hard together, so it’s something that I value. I’m not going to give up on nobody. I started something, I’m going to finish it.”
And following a 41-15 victory over the No. 7 Michigan Wolverines (10-3, 8-1) it seemed clear Gardner-Johnson made the right decision.
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Media members flocked towards the 21-year-old at the conclusion of the game. Holding back tears and sporting his new 2018 Peach Bowl Champions hat, an emotional Gardner-Johnson said, “We proved everyone wrong.”
And he’s one-hundred-percent correct. Coming off a lack luster four-win season ago, no one expected the Florida Gators to end the 2018 season with 10-wins while barreling into the offseason with a ton of momentum, especially with a new head coach.
“It’s been a ride. Last year was the most painful for us, not just for me, because seeing my teammates down, it hurt me…Like he said, Coach [Dan] Mullen didn’t recruit us, but we all made a collective effort, we’re going to buy in, this our team. A lot of the guys will be around next year, and they can lead the younger guys,” says Gardner-Johnson.
The Cocoa (Fla.) native finished his dazzling performance with five total tackles (four solo) and two interceptions, including a 30-yard pick-six. However, his most important interception saved a touchdown early in the third quarter with Florida leading 13-10 and their backs against the wall.
Gardner-Johnson explains what he saw on the deep ball from Shae Patterson.
“We wanted the shots. They went after our freshman early because they knew they could pick on them. We said hold your ground, somebody’s going to be over the top. It was a one-high with me and the safety exchanging. He read it as the safety would sit there. We rolled, and I just speed turned, ball came right to me. And, I mean, dang.”
The leading candidate to replace Gardner-Johnson next year may be freshman sensation Trey Dean III. Dean III’s playing time exceeded his initial expectations due to Marco Wilson being injured in game two. With his experience and growth, he’ll be a leading contender to take over for Gardner-Johnson in the nickel position. Dean III explained what CGJ meant to this football team.
“He means a lot. You know, Chauncey is a great player on and off the field. You know, just learning to see what ‘DBU’ really means, taking in ‘DBU’ is a part of it. You know, seeing the different things he does because he does a lot of great stuff.”
Gardner-Johnson leaves his legacy at Florida as a winner and one hell of a defensive back. Ridiculed in years past due to his poor tackling and trash talking, Gardner-Johnson exemplified what it means to overcome adversity and persevere with his game doing the talking.
During his time at Florida, Gardner-Johnson finished with 161 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, and nine interceptions, three of those were for touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 208-pound defensive back was one of the best players on defense this season and that didn’t change on Saturday afternoon in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of the fifth largest Peach Bowl crowd (74,006).