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Dan Mullen was lured away from SEC rival Mississippi State back to the University of Florida to turn around a muddling offense, but it was stellar play on defense by prospects like the versatile Gardner-Johnson that propelled the Gators' impressive 10-3 season and 41-15 demolishing of Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last season.
Gardner-Johnson enjoyed his most consistent season in 2018 - recording career-highs in tackles (71), solo stops (37), tackles for loss (nine), interceptions (four) and touchdowns scored (two) - and his success came as no surprise. Before officially adding a hyphen and Johnson to his last name before last season, the talented defensive back had already joined Florida legend and future Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith as the only true freshmen in school history to be named MVP of a bowl game in 2016, when Gardner-Johnson recorded two interceptions (returning one 58 yards for a score) in Florida's 30-3 thumping of Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
Though he boasts a prototypical compact, athletic frame with good muscular development throughout, Gardner-Johnson's best attributes may be his positional versatility and instincts. He is an instinctive defender, equally eager to attack against the run and pass. He shows terrific route-awareness and click-and-close quickness for zone coverage, instantly vacating his prior responsibility to throttle underneath passing lanes, competing for the ball and delivering timely, physical tackles.
Gardner-Johnson is comfortable playing near the line of scrimmage, showing good awareness, balance and core strength to fight blockers to make plays in traffic, including against bigger ballcarriers. He demonstrates good quickness and change of direction for man coverage responsibilities and seems to enjoy the competition, showing a willingness to talk smack with opponents.
Perhaps best of all, Gardner-Johnson trusts his eyes and shows zero hesitation when he sees the ball, resulting in several impactful plays made over his college career.
Projection: Second Round
--Field Level Media
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