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Mailbag: Yes, Devin Gardner is a Quarterback, Generating a Pass Rush, Unleashing Norfleet, and What to Think of the 2014 Class

Last week's quick mailbag post elicited a couple email questions, so here are your answers.

Yup, still a quarterback.
Yup, still a quarterback.
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to those few readers (Brian, Jack, and John) who submitted questions for this week's mailbag. Again, if you'd like your questions about Michigan sports answered by me or someone else on staff, send them to zwtravis at gmail dot com, and we can work on this being a regular feature.

On to the questions.

Devin G is obviously a receiver next year right?

You mean Devin F, right? Because yeah, he totally is. Listing him at TE is just a joke at this point, similar to saying Nik Stauskas is Not Just A Shooter.

Gardner is a great athlete and his gutsy performances against Notre Dame and OSU (4 months later) deserve the highest praise from our fan base. The 9 games in between were rough, and although the O-line was weak Gardner repeatedly made really bad decisions under pressure. So-- in your opinion, does he deserve another shot as the Michigan starting QB? The way Sugar Shane looked in the bowl game and with the rebirth of Ryan Mallett in the form of Wilton Speight (right?) is it time to move on with a pocket passer?

No. No no no no. Gardner is a quarterback. End of story.

Wait, you want more? Fine. There are three things to consider when looking at Michigan's quarterback situation going into 2014:

First, Michigan's biggest problem in 2013 wasn't at quarterback, it was in the run game. Any talk about changes in the offense has to stop and start with that. Michigan's struggles with tackles for loss have already been documented here and elsewhere, and the overall rushing numbers aren't kind any way you slice them. For the season Michigan ended up with this:

- 1634 rushing yards (11th in the Big Ten).
- 3.28 yards per carry(11th in the Big Ten, only one of two teams less than 4 ypc).
- 113.0 TFL allowed (12th in Big Ten, the next worst team allowed 87.0).
- Michigan's most productive rusher was Fitzgerald Toussaint, and he was 15th in the conference with 648 yards.

So Michigan had absolutely no run game of which to speak, and yet the Wolverines still managed to win seven games. This leads ups to...

Devin Gardner was a pretty good quarterback, all things considered. I honestly spent about one third of the season trying to talk people into keeping faith in a quarterback who posted these numbers:

- 246 yards per game (2nd in the Big Ten).
- 8.6 yards per attempt (1st in the Big Ten and one of only two players over eight).
- 146.7 passer rating (2nd in the Big Ten).
- 60.3 completion percentage (4th in Big Ten and better than average nationally).
- 21 touchdown passes thrown (t-4th in the Big Ten).

If I showed you those numbers without Devin Gardner's name attached and without adding in any of the context that is the horrendous pile of suck that was Michigan's run game, you would have said: "DO WANT."

Yes, Gardner threw 11 interceptions and toward the end of the season he didn't force as many passes, instead settling for sacks as the pocket closed in around him or never even materialized. Yes, he had critical turnovers against Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa that killed late comeback attempts. He also rushed for the third most yards in the conference as a quarterback despite taking 36 sacks (11th in the Big Ten). And in all of those games, whether Michigan won or came up short, it was often Devin Gardner that was responsible for the majority of the team's offense.

Meanwhile, in his one full game appearance, Shane Morris didn't break 200 yards despite throwing the ball 38 times, didn't throw a touchdown pass and did throw an interception. Morris is still the quarterback of the future, but Devin Gardner is the quarterback right now, and should be because...

There is a new sheriff in town. If Al Borges was still around, then yes, you might have some complex argument in which you could maybe make the case that because Borges obviously didn't know how to use Gardner's legs as a weapon and couldn't build a run game to give him the proper support that yeah, unleashing Shane Morris's cannon 50 times a game on fade routes and such might just be the "eff it, let's go deep" Rex Grossman impression this offense needs to survive.

But now that Doug Nussmeier is in town, those arguments go out the window (if they were even remotely inside the house to begin with and not shrieking in the night from the alley as if from underfed stray cats). Yes, A.J. McCarron and Shane Morris are a lot more stylistically similar, but don't forget that when given time and a solid game plan, Gardner is able to put up performances that are as impressive as anyone in the country, as evidenced by games against Ohio State and Notre Dame a year ago.

Furthermore, Nuss comes to Michigan after having helped turn A.J. McCarron from a game manager into a Heisman candidate, and before that helped mold Jake Locker into a first round draft pick and then started Keith Price down the path to eventually set a whole bunch of Washington football records (after a drop in production the year Nussmeier left).

I just don't see any rational argument that advocates Devin Gardner as anything but the prohibitive favorite to start barring anything less than a major setback from his foot injury — that was sustained midway through leading Michigan's offense to the most productive performance ever allowed by an Ohio State defense.

This officially ends my taking seriously any questions about Devin Gardner being anything but QB1 next year. Next question.

Is Taco finally going to establish himself as a menace to QB's?

I don't know if Taco Charlton is the answer along the defensive line when it comes to a pass rush, but I think Michigan can hope for him to be part of an overall improvement in the front four.

A year ago Michigan's best pass rushers were Cam Gordon, playing in place of an injured Jake Ryan for the first half of the year, Jibreel Black miscast as a 280 lbs defensive tackle, and Frank Clark once he finally got his head on straight.

Going into 2014 Michigan still doesn't look to have that elite rusher on the roster. It would be foolish to expect Clark to make the leap (mostly because, fool me three times, shame on me) and while Mario Ojemudia has shown potential, he doesn't look to be physically capable of being that kind of edge rushing force. Taco, does fit that mold, but he's been on campus just one year and there are still some issues he has to work out before we can really hope to see him take a big step forward. There is a reason these types of players are so highly sought after in the NFL — they aren't very common.

However, Michigan looks like it will be bigger and deeper across the board. If Ondre Pipkins returns close to 100% after his ACL injury Michigan will have the luxury of a true NT and 3-tech to start on the inside with Pipkins next to Willie Henry. Maurice Hurst and Henry Poggi both come off redshirts and are DT types that could break into the lineup, and if they don't Michigan should at least be able to fill the depth chart thanks to the Wormley/Stroble/Godin combination of 3/5-tech tweeners. Assuming Brennen Beyer can add bulk to play the SDE spot and retain some of his edge rushing abilities flashed early in the year, Michigan might have its most complete DL since the days of Martin/Van Bergen/Roh in 2011, only with a lot of depth do go along with it.

However, you have to like the thought of getting a full, healthy season out of Jake Ryan at SLB, and with Michigan returning most of its secondary Mattison might trust his defense more to bring pressure with linebackers.

Long story short, while I don't expect Michigan's pass rush to come from just one player making a major leap, I think overall improvement across the front seven and in pass coverage should help the team as a whole develop as a unit. If you're keeping score, however, this is where losing DaShawn Hand really hurts in 2015 and beyond.

How can Michigan better utilize Norfleet?

Quite honestly, by using him at all on offense.

Michigan's offensive staff the past two years has seemingly had an aversion to trying to implement Norfleet as anything but a really obvious jet-sweep threat. Of course when that is the only way you use him, and you use him in that capacity every single time he take the field, it becomes a rather easy defensive key to read and sets Norfleet up for failure.

One thing that worries me is that a couple places I read Bama fans were unhappy with how Nussmeier used TEs and players like Norfleet within the offense, but given that this is a different situation and Nick Saban isn't staring over (under?) his shoulder at everything he does, I'll give Nuss the benefit of the doubt for now when it comes to working players like Norfleet into the offense.

I think used as a slot receiver in 3- and 4-WR sets for underneath routes (a la Drew Dileo, although this supposes that Norfleet is anywhere near the route runner that Dileo was, which is hard to judge, again, because of an utter lack of playing time), a screen pass threat on bubble and tunnel screens, and by virtue of him not just doing one thing all the time, a legitimate threat on jet sweeps once Michigan diversifies his contributions to the offense.

I am generally positive about what Nussmeier can bring to Michigan's run offense between the tackles and its passing game down the field. What separates good from great will be how he can use Michigan's slot receivers, H-backs , U-backs and fullbacks in the passing game. If that happens, this offense is going to be a nightmare to try and stop. If it doesn't, I can still see Michigan being effective overall.

How can you explain the relatively week class of 2014?

I farmed this question out to Anthony, and here is his response:

I wouldn't call the 2014 UM class weak at all. Many Michigan fans are too quick to forget that Michigan is in great shape to finish in the top 15 of the recruiting rankings despite having a poor year on the field, which should be seen as a blessing.

Perception plays a huge role in this question. Michigan was in the top 5 of the 2014 recruiting rankings for a long stretch after another surprisingly strong start to the class, which led to many expecting UM to finish in the top five. Michigan has since missed on prospects like Da'Shawn Hand, effectively stopping its momentum in the class; it's this sort of drought that leads to recruiting fans asking why the class is weak. It's not.

Overall, the class will address Michigan's major needs quite well, and it will give the program it's most talented player in years when Jabrill Peppers arrives in Ann Arbor. That's not something to fret over.

Our new recruiting writer Eric also threw in his two cents:

I think it would be downright unfair to call Michigan's 2014 class weak. Out of the four major scouting services (247sports, ESPN, Rivals and Scout), Michigan checks in with an average class ranking of 17.5. What makes this even more impressive is that Michigan accomplished a top-20 class with only 16 commitments. Most classes in the top-20 feature at least 20 recruits, with the highest yield being 33 prospects at Tennessee. In fact, Michigan's lowest ranking comes from Rivals, who still awards a respectable ranking at No. 25.. On Rivals, only Georgia (No. 12) has a higher ranking than Michigan with the same amount of pledges or less.

But rankings only go so far. Michigan has assembled the most college-ready group of seniors out of any Brady Hoke recruiting class to this point. I expect four of Michigan's seven early enrollees to see the field on a regular basis in 2014, and it would be feasible to see five of the remaining nine Michigan recruits burn their redshirt next year. This crop of kids all look the part of college athletes and will only flourish under strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman.

While Michigan's '14 class didn't receive the hefty bump it was expecting from five-star DE DaShawn Hand, the Wolverines still have the chance to close with a couple big names. Stud in-state DE Malik McDowell is still on the market and Michigan looks to be in the thick of it for him. The Wolverines also have a legitimate shot at closing the class with current Minnesota commit Jeff Jones, a running back who more than impressed in the Under-Armour All-American Bowl this year.

My take: this isn't a disappointing class on its own, just that comparatively, Michigan doesn't have as many wow-factors in this class (save for Jabrill Peppers, which, obviously) and the overall size of the class is limited. But remember that Michigan does have a highly regarded DT in Bryan Mone, four versatile linebackers, a promising quarterback, a huge TE, and three really exciting receivers.

Don't worry about the 2014 class, especially because it could still grow over the next couple weeks.