Dennis Gardeck has a newfound comfort level in 2019.
That was evident after an offseason practice earlier this month, when the former undrafted free agent chatted with veteran linebacker Jordan Hicks for 20 minutes about the finer points of the defense.
A year ago, Gardeck had to work hard to keep his head above water while making the transition from Division II Sioux Falls to the NFL. Now it's easier to breathe.
"It's night and day," Gardeck said. "I don't have to learn names. I was actually thinking about this today: I know where all the bathrooms are. So if they get congested, now I don't have to wait in line. I can find the open one. My eyes aren't as wide. I can focus on what I need to see."
Gardeck's progress has been noticeable. The linebacker made the roster last season due to his special teams prowess, and now he is earning praise from defensive coordinator Vance Joseph for his defensive abilities.
"I think a guy that's going to be a real guy is Gardeck," Joseph said on the Coaches Chronicle podcast earlier this offseason. "He is a 6-foot-2 guy that runs a 4.5. He has heavy hands. He can rush and he's a young 'backer, so hopefully he can continue to grow and become a good player for us."
Gardeck appreciates the praise, but it's not going to his head. While some players take their spot in the NFL for granted, his journey here keeps everything in perspective.
"My redshirt year (at West Virginia State), I was the film guy for us," Gardeck said. "I'd help set up bags for the coaches. Game day I would film the wide shot, and at halftime I was responsible for the drinks and snacks. I still remember what that felt like, not being out on the field."
Gardeck still takes special teams seriously, calling it his "bread and butter." He had eight special teams tackles last season and recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in the season finale against the Seahawks.
But he'd love to get on the field defensively and will do everything in his power to be an option.
"I'm just trying to take every opportunity to learn," Gardeck said. "Inside and outside (linebackers) are in the same meeting room, so instead of tuning out when he's talking about outside 'backers, I stay locked in and try to hear what they are coaching up on the outside, so if an injury does happen, shoot, I can pop in there."
The Cardinals could have added more depth at inside linebacker this offseason but instead were satisfied with the internal options. Hicks and Haason Reddick are the projected starters, but Gardeck has positioned himself as a viable choice in subpackages or if an injury hits.
Gardeck was an inspirational story last season, going from unknown to the active roster. Now the coaches are expecting more.
"It adds a little bit of heat," Gardeck said. "I've always kind of been the underdog, kind of flown under the radar. Now I'm starting to get on people's radar. That's the next rung. Now that I'm on the radar, I have to stay on the radar."
The top images from the Cardinals' on-field work in 2019