Before Devin Gardner was the great unknown of 2012 he was the mega-talented force behind an impressive offense at Inkster High School in Detroit. He had a skill set that made him the prototypical next Vince Young: a tall, lean frame, an awkward release in need of a mechanical fix, enough athleticism to give defensive coordinators near Denard Robinson-level nightmares and a natural feel for the game of football.
He managed to average more than 3,100 all-purpose yards in his junior and senior years at Inkster, and was a single win away from bringing home a state championship both years. Gardner knew how to win before he arrived in Ann Arbor.
He also knew how to study. A standout student, Devin knew the books were just as much of a priority as football. He hinted at it in John U. Bacon's Three and Out:
I asked what they would be if they weren’t football players.
"An A student," Gardner quipped.
That was not an idle boast—Gardner is an excellent student.
‘‘I’d probably be running track or playing baseball," Robinson said. "I love all sports. But football was always my favorite. At first I was a running back. I always wanted the ball in my hands. But quarterback is best. It’s what I always wanted to play. There’s no other feeling like this. The best part? That’s easy: winning!"
"Best part?" Gardner said. "Playing on TV."
If you've read the book from front to back you had the privilege of reading a multitude of quotes from Gardner, all of which are witty. He's a football player that might have been a Michigan student even if he wasn't a football player. Thanks to Rich Rodriguez and Rod Smith he ended up in Ann Arbor, spurning offers from the likes of LSU, Michigan State and Notre Dame.
He enrolled early in 2010 after much speculation of whether or not he would be there to provide the QB depth that Michigan desperately needed. He proved scouts right in the spring game, displaying elite athleticism while tossing inaccurate passes left and right. He needed a lot of work.
Many believed a redshirt was necessary, but Rodriguez saw things differently. The 2010 season consisted of Gardner backing up Denard Robinson while a frustrated Tate Forcier looked on, ultimately leading to Forcier's transfer. With Gardner seeing a handful of meaningful snaps Michigan finally had a glimpse at quarterback depth.
The 2011 season wasn't much different, with Robinson entrenched in the starting role in Al Borge's new system and Gardner relieving him when necessary. His effort against Michigan State wasn't memorable, failing to spot a wide-open Stephen Hopkins early in the game before making a fool of himself in the fourth quarter. He later showed signs of improvement against Illinois, stepping up through a collapsing pocket before throwing a strike to Martavious Odoms for a touchdown.
This past spring game wasn't as ugly as Gardner's debut but it wasn't much of an improvement. Much of this can be attributed to the change in systems.
His release did look slightly less awkward than it did during that touchdown play against Illinois. Baby steps.
Gardner is the great unknown of 2012 because of his athleticism. Like Robinson he's capable of playing more than quarterback, but unlike Robinson he's not going to start at quarterback. There were talks of Gardner taking snaps at wide receiver in the spring, and this fall the rumors were confirmed:
Michigan coach Brady Hoke confirmed to reporters Monday that Gardner did in fact take snaps at wideout during the team's first workout, but said he's still not sure how much the team will use him in that capacity moving forward.
There's no telling if Hoke is playing poker with the media or if he actually doesn't know whether or not Gardner will remain at receiver for a large portion of the season. My gut tells me that they're going to use him more than most expect and they already know it. Jordan Kovacs thinks he's capable:
"He's a great athlete, I feel like he could play anywhere and he could probably take my spot if he tried," Michigan senior safety Jordan Kovacs said. "He's a natural athlete, and if they play him at receiver, I'm sure he'll be pretty good.
Kovacs knows that Gardner is hard to bring down, and he knows that Gardner has plenty enough speed and agility to be useful as a big target. The downside to playing Gardner extensively outside is low, with Russell Bellomy plenty capable of backing up Robinson. Devin would instantly be the biggest, most athletic receiver Michigan has, and given the lack of both size and skill outside he could be called on early and often.
Assuming Robinson doesn't go down with a serious injury the only real downside in playing Gardner at receiver is taking away time for him to learn how to be a better passer. He definitely still needs work in the aerial department, but in this case the risk is worth the reward. Look for Borges to test Gardner out at receiver against Alabama and beyond before handing him the keys to the offense in 2013. If Robinson does go down - knock on wood - Gardner may be moved back to quarterback for good in order to ensure Michigan still has two legitimate options.
When 2013 rolls around he'll be in for a battle with Bellomy and I fully expect him to win it. I don't see him passing for a wild amount of yards, but I do expect him to manage games and improve at a steady rate throughout the season while using his legs to compensate for a lack of an elite passing mind. A breakout on Vince Young's level shouldn't be expected unless he's somehow granted that medical redshirt that has been thrown around.
If Brady Hoke asks you didn't ever talk to me about a medical redshirt, K?