Filling a Hole: Why Michigan needs Devin Gardner at receiver this spring and why he won't stay there forever

Spring camp is fun, isn't it?

Practices are closed, but our collective appetite for football is so voracious that literally anything will be gobbled up quickly and consumed as the absolute groundbreaking truth. It is why AnnArbor.com can run articles about Roy Roundtree moving to flanker from split end --- not exactly an earth shattering transition between disparate positions --- and everyone and his brother (including yours truly) links to or talks about it.

Did you read the transcript to the Greg Mattison presser? It might as well have been the Will Campbell variety hour. The big man had no fewer than three questions specifically asked about his growth and development over the last couple months, and a number of other questions focused on his position group.

Spring football is simultaneously big news and no news at all. That isn't to say spring practice isn't important. I wrote last year about just how much a team can get out of these 14 practices. But included in that was the realization that there really isn't much that fans will be able to take away from spring football.

Spring is the time to develop base technique, break in younger players, and give everyone on the team a solid understanding of the base offense and defense so that fall practices can be spent refining the wrinkles and tricks that will make big plays possible during the season.

Spring practice is about the little stuff. The minutia that makes good teams good and bad teams bad. It also isn't the stuff the fan base wants. We want big answers. Will Campbell is either going to be a breakout star as a senior or a bum who never could do anything with his prodigious physical talents. Roy Roundtree will either be a flash in the pan that couldn't hack it outside of Rodriguez's offense or a success story that is better utilized in his senior season. Denard Robinson will either make "the leap" or be the same guy we always knew he was. Will the early enrollees step up and win a starting job or are they busts*.

And we want to know all of this right now.

Football is a complex and nuanced game that to all but the select few who study it closely looks more or less like big meat heads in space aged technology running into each other. The beauty is in the details and the development of a player happens over a long period of hard work on the practice field, in the weight room, and in film study. There are no immediate answers, but it doesn't stop us from incessantly asking the same questions.

So then we get to the curious case of Devin Gardner. Gardner has the most recruiting hype of any quarterback to step on Michigan's campus since Ryan Mallett. He is big, athletic, and analyst approved (a five star to Scout and the number one dual-threat quarterback to Rivals).

He also doesn't have a job. Denard Robinson has the starting quarterback spot firmly in his grasp --- with an offense that even coordinator Al Borges admits is tweaked to suit Robinson's abilities --- and the various two quarterback gimmicks that Borges unveiled against Minnesota last year slowly were phased out in favor of using just Robinson.

Meanwhile, the wide receiver depth chart looks like this:

Outside Receiver Slot Receiver
Roy Roundtree Jeremy Gallon
Jeremy Jackson Drew Dileo
Jerald Robinson ?

When coupled with the fact that the depth chart at tight end is even more shallow and inexperienced it becomes clear that this spring the offensive coaches are looking at a pool of five scholarship receivers for three positions --- two outside receivers and a slot.

Is it any wonder then that Devin Gardner --- all 6'4 205lbs of him --- is getting snaps out wide? There isn't anyone else out there. The coaches need athletic players just to conduct practice.

Past the needs of the coaches, however, Devin Gardner's foray at wide receiver has proven useful in another way: it is something to speculate about. Will he stay at receiver through the fall? Can he split time between WR and QB? Will this hinder his development as a quarterback for the 2013 season? OMG WILL HE NOT GET HIS REDSHIRT NOW!?!

Face it, most of us are irrationally obsessed with this team. It's okay, there are worse things you could choose as a hobby. And frankly there is evidence that it could work. MarQueis Gray stepped over to wide receiver as a true sophomore and caught 42 passes for 587 yards and five touchdowns in seven starts while waiting for Adam Weber to finally graduate. Gardner may not be the same athlete as Gray, but there isn't a huge difference.

So Gardner's time at wide receiver this spring has been a necessity for all involved. The coaches get an extra player to work with and the fans get something else to talk about.

Let's not, however, start penciling Gardner in for significant playing time this fall just yet. There are two receivers coming in this summer that could immediately help fill out the depth chart on the outside (Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson) and of the two tight ends on the way to campus in the summer, one has the size --- Devin Funchess at 6'5 205lbs --- to fill the same kind of role that Gardner is tasked with right now.

On top of that, the depth chart at quarterback isn't much better than it is at wide receiver, and Michigan is just one or two injuries away from being in a really tight spot. Sending your number two option at quarterback over the middle to catch passes in traffic isn't the best way to keep that depth.

In the end I agree with Jeff from Maize Pages:

Gardner will probably be used much the same as he was last year. As a back up quarterback that gets some run when Borges is feeling especially clever.

And if there are any greater long term plans for Gardner out wide, we certainly won't find them out in March.

*(If you think I'm serious about any of these wildly divisive, hyperbolic statements then you need to get your head examined.)

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