By Wanda Wiedman // @WandaW63
If you didn’t catch the Sunday AAF San Diego Fleet’s win over the San Antonio Commanders you missed out on a great game and the emergence of a shifty running back.
Ja’Quan Gardner stands at 5’-7” and around 191 pounds. He went undrafted in the 2018 NFL Draft after leading the D-IAA conference with 206 carries, 1322 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns at Humboldt State. He caught 20 passes for 212 yards and two TDs while returning two kickoffs for scores as a senior.
He was also a First Team All-GNAC honors and rushed 249 times for 1,300 yards and 18 TDs, while making 42 catches for 324 yards in 2016. Prior to that, Gardner led the Division II in rushing with 2,266 yards and 25 TDs on 337 carries as a sophomore. How did he not get drafted? Well, when you are in a draft that had running backs Saquan Barkley, Sony Michel, Kerryon Johnson, Derrius Guice, and Nick Chubb, the odds are against you.
Unfortunately, he did not get the same opportunity as the Denver Broncos UFA RB Philip Lindsay received when RB Royce Freeman, who was drafted by the Broncos in the third round, was injured in Week 7. That gave Lindsay a chance to shine and that he did!
But like Lindsay, if Gardner was given the chance he may have been the difference maker for the 49ers. He is an extremely creative and versatile player. He is patient when rushing and waits for blocks to develop so that he can quickly find ample running lanes. Gardner is quick, sneaky-quick with good lean and burst as seen here.
— San Diego Fleet (@AAFFleet) February 25, 2019
Watching Garner bounce around and create space is a thing of beauty. Not only can he rush, but he can catch in the backfield. On his Pro Day, he ran a 4.58, which would be considered a little slow when you are that low to the ground. It very well could be the reason he fell under the radar.
But Gardner did get his chance with the San Francisco 49ers…sort of. He was supposed to compete during preseason last August after signing a 3-year deal but was never called on the field to play. With running backs Matt Breida, Alfred Morris, Raheem Mostert there, plus the versatile fullback Kyle Juszcsyk there wasn’t any room for him. Instead, he was cut a month later and his dreams shattered.
Gardner had to show what he was capable of bringing to a team and he was up for the challenge. He would soon get that chance to play for the new AAF league as the main workhorse. He currently leads the league with 281 rushing yards, including the 83-yard run against the Commanders and has three touchdowns so far. That’s just in the first three weeks!
He is definitely making a statement that if given the opportunity, he could be utilized his small stature and dual run and pass catching abilities in the same way as Tarik Cohen does for the Chicago Bears.
The way it looks, Gardner was the 49er’s loss and the Fleet’s gain. Ja’Quan Gardner is destined to be a great addition to any NFL team. But for now, we can enjoy watching him juke defenders and catch on the run for the San Diego Fleet in an enjoyable season of the inaugural Allegiance of American Football.
Talk AAF with Wanda on Twitter // @WandaW63