Cardinals LB Dennis Gardeck in spotlight a year after going undrafted

At this point of last season, Dennis Gardeck was an undrafted linebacker product from the University of Sioux Falls with pro football dreams

Success in the following months was winning a special teams role and sticking with the Arizona Cardinals through the regular season.

Success now looks like another big leap.

With Cardinals starting inside linebacker Haason Reddick requiring a knee procedure to reportedly clean up a meniscus, Gardeck is next man up. He found himself running with the first team and alongside Jordan Hicks during Friday’s open practice, and that could remain the inside linebacker tandem with Reddick out “a few weeks,” according to head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

The 6-foot, 232-pound Gardeck wants to keep his head down and stay off the emotional “roller coaster” that could lead to stagnation or contentment.

Still, it’s hard for him not to think about how much he’s grown, even if this opportunity is only arriving on the first few days of training camp, with the regular season more than a month off and Reddick’s return quite possible in that time.

“Back at the hotel room, you kind of think about, ‘wow,'” Gardeck said Saturday. “You have that kind of blind ambition that you will get here but when you’re here it’s kind of a surreal thing. Again, that’s riding the roller coaster. You got to reel yourself back in — one day at a time.”

Gardeck stood out last year on special teams. He posted seven tackles and recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the season finale.

Special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Jeff Rodgers remained with Arizona after the team fired head coach Steve Wilks.

That likely didn’t hurt Gardeck’s chances of being retained with Kingsbury taking over, but he still needed to prove his value to his new head coach and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph if he wanted a bigger role.

“He’s a guy who really showed up during the spring, flying around, made a name for himself in this organization on special teams last year,” Kingsbury said. “Really stepped up, had some position work in the spring. I think everyone is excited to see what he can do with extra reps and going with some of the 1s at times.

“He’s a guy who shows up early, extra-hard worker. Super football intelligent.”

There’s still a steep learning curve without regular reps at linebacker at the NFL level.

Gardeck is aware of the position he’s put himself in. He’s earned the right to get reps with the first team, and the recovery period for Reddick offers him a special opportunity to play alongside Hicks, arguably Arizona’s biggest offseason addition not named Kyler Murray.

That’s something Gardeck won’t take for granted.

“I feel like it’s having a cheat code out on the field,” he said of Hicks. “He’s so smart, so as a young ‘backer, I definitely need to improve my football IQ, and I’ve been working at it. But he’s leagues ahead of me as far as mental experience, all that. So just having him, it kind of calms you down. When you know what’s coming or what to expect, the game slows down so much more.”

Reddick, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in 2017, is expected to slide back into a starting role once he is cleared from his knee procedure. He’s earned rave reviews this offseason, too.

Regardless, it’s a big next few weeks for Gardeck’s development.

“Just soaking in the opportunity,” he said. “I think the one thing I learned my rookie year is don’t ride that roller coaster, just try to (be) never too high, never too low. Just approach every day with clear eyes and make the most out of every opportunity.”

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