Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Players to Watch in 2011: Devin Gardner

With Michigan returning to more of a "West Coast" pro-style offense, one of the players who can really stand out is sophomore Devin Gardner. He is currently the backup quarterback for speed demon Denard Robinson, who was utilized dominantly in Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. (Robinson's abilities were used so much that he accounted for about 67% of the total offense in 2010.) 

Despite Robinson's amazing speed and decent throwing ability, Michigan still finished 7-5, was humiliated by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl (losing 52-14), and Rich Rodriguez was fired. Now, Brady Hoke is in as head coach, Al Borges is in as offensive coordinator, and a new era of Michigan football begins.

That era will include a quarterback who primarily takes snaps from under center, although the shotgun will still be used. Borges has said that he will not discount Robinson's skills as a runner and plans to still employ several quarterback draw plays. However, this new offense is less demanding of a running quarterback and seemingly more demanding of a passing one. Robinson's ability to pass is very good, but ask anyone whether he's a better runner or passer and they will tell you that they prefer to see him run.

Then there's Robinson's backup, Devin Gardner. At 6'4", 210 lbs., Gardner seems more built for the quarterback position as a pocket passer. He can scramble effectively, but he doesn't have nearly the same burst of speed that Robinson does. His ability to pass, though, is impressive. While he still has some developing to do, Gardner's throws during the 2011 spring game gave the impression that he'll do very well and is a competent quarterback. He was able (mostly) to scramble away from the pass rush and, in one particular flash of talent, he managed to heave a long pass to wide receiver Je'Ron Stokes in the end zone for a touchdown.

As with any year where there's a transition, the spring game gives little insight into what will happen in the coming season. In fact, most people who watched the spring game will say that it provoked more questions than answers. On the field, the defense seemed to dominate, which it struggled to do at all in 2010. However, this is not necessarily conducive of improvement. The defense could have stayed the same (i.e. bad) and the offense simply got a whole lot worse. Conversely, the defense could have wholly improved to the point where it actually tested the offense, which would be a good thing if the offense has stayed at roughly the same level of effectiveness.

Considering these factors, it is difficult to determine where the offense, particularly Gardner, stands. Gardner himself did not wow anybody in the way that Robinson did in September 2010 against Connecticut and Notre Dame, but to those watching Gardner closely there were still signs that could point to a breakout, which is why we are analyzing his potential.

Gardner was recruited by Rich Rodriguez's staff as early as 2009. In 2010, listed him as a five-star recruit and the fifth best quarterback in the country. He was from Inkster, Michigan, and attended Inkster High School. There he accumulated as much as 4,816 passing yards, 2,892 rushing yards, and 75 touchdowns in his junior and senior years, according to the 2010 football preview issue of The Wolverine

Gardner was one of the few highly touted in-state recruits that Rodriguez was able to get during his short tenure that Michigan State's Mark Dantonio did not. Gardner also held offers from LSU, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State, and West Virginia. In an interview with MGoBlog, Gardner said he was also interested in Ohio State growing up but never received an offer.

Despite his incredible numbers and five-star status, the most common criticism against Gardner was that he lacked refinement. Brian Cook on MGoBlog wrote that he was "raw like sushi" but had "an impressive mix of run and pass," especially in that he averaged twelve yards-per-carry as a junior in 2008. 

After he committed to Michigan and enrolled early, all the signs pointed that he would redshirt his freshman year, but Michigan and Rich Rodriguez were desperately in need of a third effective quarterback (behind Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier), and so Gardner played as a true freshman in 2010. Though he received groans from the Michigan faithful because he fumbled his first snap in the spring game, Gardner was good enough to pass Forcier (who had been the starter in 2009) on the depth chart. Playing back-up for Robinson, Gardner's first collegiate snap was against Connecticut on September 4, 2010.

Since then, he has matured nicely as a quarterback and has become increasingly effective. Denard Robinson will still likely be the starter in 2011 because of his speed, but Gardner's abilities as a passer are nothing to scoff at. He clearly has the talent that earned him five stars. He has also shown that he can fit well in the new, pro-style offense, despite 2010 reports had he knew only the spread when he was in high school. Michigan's offensive coordinator, Al Borges, has been consistently impressed with Gardner's abilities at quarterback and says that he and Denard share a lot of the same characteristics. 

"Devin is formidable," Borges told "He's a nice quarterback and does some really nice things. He has some of the same traits [as Robinson], in terms of being able to pull the ball down and run, but he's a little more of the prototype in that he's tall and that he can see the field...I think Devin can work in the pocket because of his profile very naturally. Denard also works better in the pocket than you might think he can but his profile doesn't cater to it as much as Devin's. That to me is the difference."

Personally, while I think that Denard Robinson can effectively be considered a dual threat, I also think that Gardner has the better arm. (He's no slouch at running, though.) Where Denard shines as a surprise runner, Gardner is a more capable passer. Expect both quarterbacks to have good numbers in the coming season, but I wouldn't be surprised if Gardner nabs the top spot because of his throwing ability. Like most young players, he still has to work on technique, but he has shown improvement over the course of his career.

Of course, Gardner will have to prove himself if he is to land the starter position, but he thinks it's in reach. "It's fun," he said after the spring game. "[Denard Robinson] is my roommate. We're just battling right now."

When asked how he felt about the competition, Gardner responded, "It's a great feeling because I love to compete. That's what I play football for: to compete."

1 comment:

  1. Great finding a blog that's all Michigan -- staying active in the summer. Thanks for bringing the latest on the leaders and the best - the big BLUE!
    Got something on the defensive coaches or kicking coaches, maybe? Or the rest that was forgotten during the rough rich-rod years?