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2014 Michigan Football Preview: Devin Gardner's Final Hurrah

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Michigan has one last year with Devin Gardner leading the charge. What kind of send off it will be depends on Devin, his new coach, and the five as-yet-undetermined large gentlemen in front of him.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Gardner will start.  This much we know for sure.  It hasn't ever really been in question, but the illusion that it was is based on everything else.

Everything else being: now that we know Devin Gardner is The Guy going forward, we're left to grapple with just what kind of a quarterback Michigan is going to see.  Devin is a wildly talented, athletically gifted marvel that is capable at any time of spectacular meltdowns or incomprehensible big plays.  Last year ran the gamut.

Michigan now has a new offense led by quarterback guru Doug Nussmeier, and with that should come some stability week to week on offense.  Nussmeier is working with a young and inexperienced offensive line and trying to install a inside zone heavy running game to take some of the heat off of Gardner.  The running back talent is in place and the receiving corp is full of potential options.  Once again Michigan's success or failure in the season is going to come down to just how much Gardner can squeeze out of an offensive lineup around him that is still coming of age in a lot of key positions.

* * *

There was a lot of hubub over the offseason as an ostensible quarterback controversy embroiled spring practice and offseason workouts.  People looked at Shane Morris's audition in the BWW bowl and a few of them saw some glimmer of hope.

What they didn't see is a top-five Big Ten quarterback.  He was on the bench nursing a broken foot he earned nearly hero-balling Michigan to a win against Ohio State.

Year Gms Att Comp % Yds TDs INTs Rtg YPA YPG
Jr. 12 345 208 60.3 (4th) 2960 (2nd) 21 11 (9th) 146.07 (2nd) 8.6 (1st) 246.7
So. 5 126 75 59.5 1219 11 5 161.66 9.7 243.8

What Michigan had when Devin Gardner was on the field was, statistically speaking, one of the more productive quarterbacks in the Big Ten.  He ranked first last year in yards per attempt, and second in total yards and passer rating.  He was fourth in completion percentage and helped Jeremy Gallon break a school receiving record.  He.  Was.  Good.

It wasn't just in generating big plays, either.  Those helped prop up some of his numbers as a sophomore when his YPA was an impressive 9.7.  Small sample size, hail mary, and Iowa's debacle of a secondary that year mean plenty of disclaimers on the outlier-ish nature of that number, but, followed directly on its heels by a solid 8.6 as a junior is the sign of a good quarterback getting better at all aspects, and without as many big plays to prop up the average.

Over the winter, Ian Boyd took a long look at just what Devin was so good at that often gets overlooked: the quick underneath passes to keep the chains moving.  This was a Drew Dileo specialty, and something the two developed a good amount of chemistry on.  Boyd explains:

The demands of the Al Borges passing game are not overly simple for his quarterbacks and require precise timing, accuracy, and the ability to read defenses. Attempting to fulfill the demands of that offense under the kind of pressure Gardner faced all season is a monumental task.

This spacing concept is an example of the kind of throws West Coast teams use to control the ball and move the chains:

The ball is thrown into a tight window between the coverage of the safety and the linebacker. The timing and accuracy are essential, as is the trust between the receiver and the QB.

When Devin Gardner was on, as he was just around half of the season, he was very much on.  The Notre Dame game featured a lot of these short passes interspersed with vertical passes that gashed the Irish defense deep.  Michigan did the same thing against Ohio State, breaking a lot of big constraint plays early and finishing the game off with a slow marching offense led by Devin Gardner's accurate arm under pressure.

Of course, the bad times were very bad indeed and Michigan spent most of the month of November moving backwards as the run game stagnated and the passing game fled (i.e. Devin Gardner, a broken, beaten down man) for its life.

When Gardner felt the pressure more last year, and the running game hit the skids, it was often time for him to revert to his half-assed hero mode in which bad habits took over and the worst of his freewheeling style got the best of him.

A walk down memory lane into the Akron and UConn games from last year are a great insight into the trend of Gardner coming apart at the seams when bad circumstances turned to worse.  Michigan's offense got off to a quick start thanks to a big play against Akron, but it failed to develop any rhythm and as the first half wore on Gardner broke down, turning the ball over on three consecutive drives.  Michigan would survive in the second, in large part because Gardner gutted out enough offensive plays to get Michigan over the hump and in a position to win.  The same thing would happen the next week against UConn when Michigan's offense pooped all over itself in the first half thanks to two more Gardner mistakes, only to rebound in the second half because once again Gardner helped lead the charge.

Hell, even in the Notre Dame game, Gardner threw what was undisputedly the worst interception in the history of football while in the midst of a 21/33, 294 yds, 4/1 td/int night.

And therein lies the crux of the Devin Gardner debate: how does each individual person weigh the cost/benefit of having Devin Gardner on the field.  Gardner was quite often an issue for Michigan last year, and his mistakes tended to be of the horribly spectacular variety that would cost Michigan huge.

He also...
- Had no run game to lean on.
- Dealt with laughable pass protection most of the year behind a revolving lineup of green interior offensive linemen.
- Was physically beat up, so much so that he finished the Ohio State game on a broken foot.
- Still gritted out big wins for Michigan when it needed offensive fireworks (ND, IU), when it needed points down the stretch (Akron, UConn), and even did his best to put Michigan in a position to win in regulation against PSU before Michigan got Allen Robinson'd.

Michigan's offense was such a wildly inconsistent thing that was made so needlessly complex by an ever panicking Al Borges that it was often times left to Gardner to try fashion Grecian sculptures out of old, sweaty dynamite.  That he didn't blow his own hands off more often than not is a testament to just how damn special he can be in the right situation.

* * *

It remains to be seen what the right situation is.  Gardner spent the offseason regaining his health and getting acquainted with a new offensive coordinator and a new playbook.

The buzzwords floating around the offensive scheme are 'simplicity", 'identity' and predictably 'toughness'.  Michigan has traded in its heavily complex, often needlessly reactionary pro-style offensive mess of a playbook for one that stresses upon the mastery of a few simple concepts and the execution of our eleven guys over yours.

Michigan will be an inside zone running team.  Nussmeier has installed the system at all his previous stops and, given Michigan's recent success recruiting big, pile-driving offensive linemen, basing the offense around the zone concept that most wants to pick up a defense and deposit it three yards down field is a good move in both the short and the long term.  This year the line will get to focus on just that, instead of an ever evolving series of stopgap measures and throw-shit-against-the-wall ideas meant to paper over a lack of any one true identity and go to play.

Meanwhile, Nussmeier's passing game is built around a lot of simple concepts that give the quarterback easier reads but more freedom within the offense.  He will still run a lot of things to attack vertically, but he loves drag routes and mesh plays to open up receivers underneath, and his offenses are capable of attacking defenses down the field.

So far, he is happy with how his quarterback has picked up the new schemes:

"Devin's an extremely confident guy. And he should be with his skill set. I think that the biggest thing was to get Devin focused on what we wanted to accomplish as an offense and get him to understand, you know, why are we calling the plays that we're calling. Is it built to be an explosive or built to be an efficient play? And asking him to make the checks we're asking him to make. Those are things that take time and he's really done a good job of taking extra time to get to know those types of things."

...

"I think his overall understanding, read progressions, getting off a primary target, getting to a secondary target-really starting to learn to utilize his checkdowns and his progressions."

Michigan has, of course, made it official that Gardner will be The Guy, and the new offense is installed.  Michigan is in the process of sorting out everything else, trying to find the best rotation of wide receivers and running backs, while putting together a line where there are virtually no guarantees that anyone ends up anywhere.  Michigan's offense once again looks like ten celestial bodies orbiting a star.

Outside of all the little questions (who plays opposite Funchess on the outside, does Cole break into the starting lineup, what running back gets the most carries,et cetera) there are really only two that really matter.  One of them only Devin Gardner can answer.  The other one, he can only hope.

Can Michigan run the ball forward?

This one is almost entirely outside of Devin Gardner's control.  While he will have the opportunity to carry the ball in the run game yet again, a herculean effort from him would once again only paper over the fact that Michigan can't do on the ground what it wants to do and the quarterback has to bail everyone out.

If Michigan's offense is serious, it has to be able to consistently get positive yards on the ground.  Last year's offensive line was likely the worst in Michigan history in that regard, giving up more tackles for loss than any other team in the nation (nearly nine per game).  That is not counting all the running plays that went for no gain, or even just one yard.

If Michigan can go from horrendous to just average — that would be somewhere around six TFLs per game — the run game will take a step forward, Michigan will be better equipped to turn long passing downs (the Wolverines were 123rd in average third down distance a year ago and 97th in adjusted third down conversion rate) into more manageable third down opportunities, which will allow the offense to string together drives instead of struggling to 75th in third down conversion percentage (Michigan was 120th in that stat in just the month of November, FYI).

Positive rushing plays, even for just 1-3 yards will take pressure off the passing game to produce long, drive sustaining plays, and allow the offense to play with more balance and a more open playbook.

Limiting mistakes

"You never want to restrict a player's ability. You've got to play to a player's strengths. You know, we talk about it all the time in the staff room. It's out job as coaches to put our playmakers in the best possible position to make plays and Devin obviously has great natural playmaking ability so the focus has been to let the system work for him and then when things break down to let him use his natural athletic ability."

Doug Nussmeier

If Michigan gets its running game together in some way shape or form, it opens another door for the Wolverines, one that Devin Gardner could help the team walk through.

Last year Michigan's offense was a boom or bust group that often won games on just a handful of big plays, but nearly lost them on those same plays.  Devin Gardner was the biggest culprit on both sides of this.  His athleticism allowed him to do some wonderful things, but he also overestimated his ability at times and got careless with the ball when he had it down the field (he had fumbling issues as well as his 11 interceptions).

If Gardner slides into this new offense smoothly and it allows him to make easier reads, that could have a big impact on his decisionmaking.  Anything that allows him to cut down mistakes will help Michigan's offense swing a lot more firepower down the field while keeping the offensive consistent in production.

In year one under Nussmeier, AJ McCarron cut his already low interception number from 5 to 3 and improved both his YPA and overall yardage while throwing and completing a similar number of passes.  Nussmeier helped turn an already very good young quarterback into a great quarterback that was more efficient in limited numbers.  This would be an ideal for Michigan, if Gardner kept his same number of passes and yards but simply did more with them.  Half his interceptions and another half yard per pass would amount to a big swing in overall production.

Of course, this will have to be accomplished on a game to game, play by play basis, meaning that Gardner is going to have to consistently play with the kind of footwork and fundamentals that are present when he is at his best.  How good a hands-on quarterbacks coach Nussmeier is will be tested by Gardner's maturation this fall.  He is already there physically.  If Nussmeier is right, and the scheme can be molded around a smarter, more efficient Devin Gardner, then Michigan's offense could be a lot more imposing than it has any right to be with such a young offensive line.

That's a big if.

* * *

Michigan's offense last Saturday at the open scrimmage looked a lot more 2013 than anyone wanted to see.  The running game was stagnant — despite comments from Hoke afterward that the line had performed better earlier in the week — and the offense moved up and down the field thanks to big plays in the passing game.

In the center of the field, clad in a bright maize jersey adorned with ol' 98 was Devin Gardner, sidestepping rushes and operating in this new offense much the same as he had in the last one,  There were the big plays like his nice pass to Devin Funchess early in the scrimmage and unfortunate ones (Blake Countess's interception comes to mind), but all of them had that particular Devin Gardner flair.

No one will ever accuse Gardner of being the most polished quarterback out there, but therein lies a big part of his charm.  Things Happen when Devin is on the field.  Big, beautiful, utterly incomprehensible things driven in combination between his athleticism and his just-sling-it mentality when things break down.  This mix of natural skill, understanding of the offense, and a teetering balance between turning nothing into a big play or a disastrous one is what makes him so good and so polarizing.  The source of his charms is also his Achilles' heel.

We know that Michigan and Devin Gardner have one final year together.  What we don't know is just what Devin can do with that time he has been given.

Call it a hunch, but I think finding out is going to be the fun part.