CHICAGO -- Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner says he wrote down two goals this offseason. One involved being more consistent; the other, helping underclassmen Wilton Speight and Shane Morris improve. Trying to accomplish both could prove problematic.
Gardner will enter training camp needing to fend off Morris in a putative quarterback battle. If Gardner teaches Morris too much, he could risk losing the starting job. Yet after Gardner amassed 32 touchdowns and nearly became the second quarterback in program history to throw for 3,000 yards last season, it’s worth considering why he hasn’t already locked up the top spot on the depth chart.
“It’s definitely a competition and I’m just trying to help [Shane Morris] the best I can,” Gardner said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days.
Rivals.com rated Gardner the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the nation in 2010. He committed to Michigan after coach Rich Rodriguez’ first season, in April 2009, over scholarship offers from Oregon, Notre Dame and Wisconsin, among other high-major programs. With his speed and ability to throw on the run, Gardner seemed to possess the perfect skills for Rodriguez’s up-tempo offense. “His potential is almost limitless, and he could be a major terror for defensive coordinators at the next level,” a Rivals.com scout wrote of Gardner in 2009.
Gardner appeared in three games in the 2010 season (he was later granted a medical redshirt). In January 2011, Michigan fired Rodriguez, who had won just 15 games in three seasons. The Wolverines replaced him with former San Diego State coach Brady Hoke, a Michigan Man who sought to reestablish the Wolverines’ hard-nosed identity with a pro-style offense. Hoke and Borges stuck with Denard Robinson, another dual-threat signal caller recruited by Rodriguez, who had started every game in 2010. Gardner reportedly considered transferring.
In 2012, Michigan asked Gardner to change positions. The former quarterback mega prospect, tabbed for stardom as the perfect triggerman for Rodriguez’s spread offense, would now be split out at receiver in a system he wasn’t recruited for. “I think of myself as a football player, and a football player is trying to help his team,” Gardner said after his first game at receiver. “So whatever coach Hoke feels is going to help the team, that’s what I’m going to have to do.”
Gardner switched back to quarterback after Robinson suffered an elbow injury in October. He entered 2013 as Michigan’s starter, and received some early Heisman buzz (he wore No. 98 in honor of Tom Harmon, the Wolverines’ first Heisman winner) after lighting up Notre Dame for five touchdowns and 376 yards of total offense in an 11-point win. In that game, Gardner seemed to emerge into what SI.com’s Pete Thamel described as “the perfect marriage of the old-school dropback quarterback and the modern elusive quarterback, a hybrid that showcased what the future of the Michigan program will look like for years to come.”
Other strong performances would follow. Gardner completed 77 percent of his passes and accounted for two touchdowns in a 42-13 rout of Minnesota and, two weeks later, torched Indiana for 584 yards and five touchdowns in a 16-point win. He led a near upset of Ohio State, delivering 460 total yards and five touchdowns even though he broke his toe and injured ligaments in his left foot early in the third quarter.
Yet while Gardner shined in some moments, he stumbled in others. He had rough outings against Northwestern and UConn, committed three turnovers in a loss to Penn State and tossed a combined 11 interceptions in defeats to Iowa and Michigan State. Even in that electric win against Notre Dame, he recklessly threw a pass into the hands of a defender while being tackled in his own end zone. Gardner sometimes held the ball too long in attempts to extend plays and made poor decisions. A porous offensive line and an ineffective run game – the Wolverines ranked 11th in the Big Ten with 3.28 yards per rush – didn’t help.
Hoke said there were times when Gardner tried to do too much. “I think, number one, he’s got to trust in his teammates. He’s got to trust that he doesn’t have to win the game for you. It’s nice to have a great quarterback who can, but he’s gotta understand – and I know he does – that there’s 115 other guys, 114 other guys on that team.” Hoke added: “But at the same time, we didn’t help him much.”
“A lot of times last year," Gardner said, "I didn’t get a chance to focus on my mechanics as much as I’d like to because I felt like I was trying to survive.”
With Gardner sidelined for Michigan’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl matchup with Kansas State, the Wolverines turned to then-freshman Morris, a heralded 2013 recruit who seemed a better fit for Borges’ pro-style offense. Though Morris only passed for 196 and one touchdown in a 17-point loss, he flashed impressive arm strength and played well enough that Hoke declared a quarterback competition at the outset of camp. "I think (the starting quarterback for next season is) an unknown," Hoke said in February, according to MLive.com.
While Gardner’s performance in Michigan’s spring game didn’t resolve the team’s quarterback situation, Gardner made strides throughout spring workouts. Borges was fired in January, and former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier replaced him. Gardner says Nussmeier’s zone-blocking offense confers the quarterback more responsibility before the snap. Gardner or the center must identify the middle linebacker to key protection schemes on every play. Still, Gardner says Nussmeier’s system is easier for the linemen to digest, which is good news considering Michigan yielded 36 sacks last season and loses starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield.
“It’s not been difficult at all,” Gardner said when asked about dealing with his third offensive scheme change. “I’ve had great coaching. Coach Nuss is doing a great job.”
From super dual-threat prospect to backup to wide receiver to starter to injured to QB battle, Gardner enters final season at Michigan nearing the conclusion of a turbulent five-year odyssey. He jokingly said he feels as if he’s been at the school “Not 100, maybe like 98 years.” How will Gardner be remembered at Michigan? A more timely question is whether he can solidify the team’s starting quarterback spot.