Devin Gardner came into 2012 expecting to catch poorly-thrown balls all season long. Things changed when Denard Robinson's dilithium arm was wrecked against Nebraska, forcing Michigan fans across the country to watch an offense that was about as intimidating as Pete Campbell in a dark alley.
Then the Michigan coaching staff had a brilliant idea: Move Devin Gardner back to the position that he was always destined to play. This went well, especially considering that Gardner had been practicing as a receiver for roughly three months leading up to his debut as Michigan's starting quarterback. All Gardner did was step into the leading role of a misfit offense and outscore Braxton Miller in Big Ten play. If only he'd been there all season.
Now it's the year 2013, and Gardner has been prepping to be the man at quarterback since he watched a young Michigan secondary blow his lead against South Carolina. Motivation, it is.
There are holes in Gardner's game. Some are glaring and need fixing immediately; see: ball security. Others, like smoothing out the rough edges of his pocket mechanics, will take thousands of repetitions to fix. We'll get there.
Fixing an already stellar machine
Devin Gardner is an elite athlete. Standing at 6'4" and weighing 210 pounds, he's a chiseled quarterback who happens to run in the 4.5s in the forty-yard dash. He has the height needed to see over his hulking tackles yet is fast enough to escape from most defenders in the Big Ten. He also has an NFL-caliber arm, slinging the ball sixty-plus yards to the back of the end zone on unconventional roll-outs. His physical tools are undeniably impressive.
All of the potential comes with a caveat: There's a flaw in Gardner's mechanics for every physical tool he possesses. Much of this is due to him flipping between coaches, systems and positions throughout his college career. Part of it can be attributed back to his raw state coming out of high school. He has made many great strides over the last three years, but he still has many to take.
The first step Gardner must take is simple. He's Michigan's starting quarterback. Unlike some before him, he has no backup who is capable of stepping into the offense without major hiccups. Gardner knows how great of an athlete he is, and he uses it to his advantage when the pocket breaks down. This is fine, but taking contact shouldn't ever be acceptable unless he's grinding for a first down or trying to avoid a sack. Already past the markers? That defender who's looking to take your head off should set off an alarm in your head to get down. Michigan's season depends on it.
There's another issue with Gardner's tendency to keep the ball alive while running past first down markers: the ball is still live, and he often carries it like a loaf of bread:
Turnovers are the easiest way to remove yourself and your team from a game, and Gardner's reluctance to correctly tuck the football scares the living hell out of me. Get past the line of scrimmage and put the ball on the Michael Hart pressure points. Hart said it best: Prepare to be hit.
Next, become more mechanical. If Gardner takes ten three-step drops in a game, each one should look nearly identical to the next. He should also stand tall in the pocket without twitching his head and arms around out of anticipation. His balance on throws is sometimes thrown off by the slightest bit as his head and upper body anticipate the throw before his feet do. A chunk of his accuracy issues can be fixed by simply standing tall, keeping his feet live and delivering when he finds a route, all without any unnecessary motion.
His tendency to slap the ball against his non-throwing hand and twitch in his upper body is also due to the fact that Gardner still doesn't see routes open before they're open. He'll stand in the pocket and take an extra step, waiting for a receiver on a double move to free himself up. Case in point:
That isn't the only time Gardner cost Gallon major YAC on a double move. He will hold onto the ball, see the field open up, and then let the ball go. What he should do is see the pre-snap coverage and know that the safety won't be there to pick him off if the corner falls for Gallon's fake, sailing the ball over the corner and into the arms of an open Gallon. The confidence needed to pull off these throws will come with hours and hours of film study; Gardner won't throw the receiver open if he's not familiar with the coverage. His claims of being a film junkie should prove to be true on the field this season.
Finally, rinse and repeat. Quarterbacks make mistakes in games when the answers aren't right in front of them on the field. Studying film, practicing simple mechanics and memorizing the techniques of specific receivers all minimize the time it takes for a quarterback to process plays when he's on the field. Devin Gardner is most likely doing one of these things as you read this article, and I personally can't wait to see his progress when he steps onto the field in Ann Arbor.