Coby Bryant won the Jim Thorpe Award last year as college football’s best defensive back, and Sauce Gardner might be the first cornerback selected in the 2022 NFL draft.
Ohio State’s new safeties coach played a key role in helping both of them become elite collegiate cornerbacks and NFL draft prospects.
Before he was hired by the Buckeyes in January, Perry Eliano was the cornerbacks coach at Cincinnati for the last two years. Over the course of those two years, Bryant and Gardner emerged as two of the best cornerbacks in the entire country.
Gardner, who did not allow a single touchdown pass in his Cincinnati career, earned first-team All-American honors after both of those seasons. Bryant, the younger brother of former Ohio State safety Christian Bryant, also earned first-team All-American honors last season after earning first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors in his first season being coached by Eliano.
Their cornerback play was a massive reason why Cincinnati allowed the lowest opposing passer rating (103.4) and the second-fewest passing yards per game (169.2) of any team in college football in 2021.
Gardner is expected to be a top-20 draft pick in April, while Bryant has been projected as a Day 2 draft pick, and both of them say Eliano has played a part in getting them to where they are now.
“He helped me understand the game of football,” Bryant said Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “Helped me not only become a better football player but a better man as well, too. So he’s done a lot and I’m extremely appreciative for him.”
Cincinnati cornerback Coby Bryant on his former position coach Perry Eliano, whos now Ohio States safeties coach: He helped me not only become a better football player, but a better man ... Hes going to give them all that hes got. Hes going to be completely bought in. pic.twitter.com/ToiLffolc7— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) March 5, 2022
Like Bryant, Gardner said the impact Eliano has made on him over the past two years goes beyond the football field.
“He's a great guy. I don't even look at him like a coach, I look at him more like a mentor,” Gardner said. “He just makes sure I'm making the right decisions. Not saying that he had to like hold my hand or anything, but he had my best interest. He don't just talk to me about football, he talks to me about life in general. He always wanted the most out of me. That's why I appreciate him, and I appreciate everything he's done for me.”
Cincinnati cornerback Sauce Gardner on Perry Eliano: Man, he's a great guy. I don't even look at him like a coach, I look at him more like a mentor ... he didnt just talk to me about football, he talked to me about life in general. He always wanted the most out of me. pic.twitter.com/PuFwKfeXY4— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) March 5, 2022
Cincinnati was one of just two schools (along with Baylor) to have three defensive backs at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, and Bearcats safety Bryan Cook – who also earned first-team All-AAC honors last season – said Eliano also helped him play at his best. While Eliano coached cornerbacks rather than safeties at Cincinnati, he was the coach who would talk to all of the defensive backs on the field during games, and Cook said Eliano worked with all the defensive backs to prepare for each game, too.
“He helped guys like me, also the whole secondary along with (Cincinnati safeties coach) Colin Hitschler, just to help us get ready for each and every week. Whether it was game planning, whether it was mindset-wise or just the daily motivation,” Cook said. “I think that his trust in us helped us a lot on the field.”
Gardner said the Cincinnati defensive backs had “intense” conversations in the film room, and because of those conversations, he felt comfortable talking football with NFL coaches at the combine this past week.
“He took us to a different level, making us get on the board and draw what everybody does on the field, not just the cornerback,” Gardner said. “That's why I've been so good in interview prep and everything when it comes to getting on the board, just because of him. If it weren't for him, I don't know what I’d be doing when it came to game planning, getting on the board, writing defenses and writing what all of the guys do.”
When asked what Ohio State is getting in Eliano, Bryant said the Buckeyes are getting a coach who is passionate about doing everything he can to help his players succeed.
“He’s a high-energy guy,” Bryant said. “He’s gonna give them all that he’s got. He’s gonna be completely bought in. He’s gonna help them understand the game of football. He’s a competitor too himself, with being a coach and everything. So they’re gonna get a great coach.”
Gardner said the Buckeyes are “getting a dawg.”
“They’re getting somebody who always brings the juice, high-intensity,” Gardner said. “He's a great guy, man. He’s going to make sure they become the best.”
“He took us to a different level, making us get on the board and draw what everybody does on the field, not just the cornerback.”– Sauce Gardner on Perry Eliano
Cook said Ohio State’s defensive backs should be prepared to work hard with Eliano coaching them, but that they’ll ultimately benefit from the work he asks them to put in.
“You’re gonna work, for sure,” Cook said. “He’s gotta get on you a couple times, but he’s gonna make sure that you’re doing things right and you’re going to be doing it at a high level.”
Cincinnati safety Bryan Cook on what he would tell Ohio States defensive backs about playing for Perry Eliano: You're going to work, for sure. He's going to get on you a couple times, but he's going to make sure that you're doing things right and doing it at a high level. pic.twitter.com/4Qycnzymis— Dan Hope (@Dan_Hope) March 5, 2022