By Ashley Dunkak
With Denard Robinson graduated and off in the NFL, the Michigan offense will adjust this season to best use the strengths of quarterback Devin Gardner.
After Robinson got hurt last season, Gardner took over. The Detroit native had been playing wide receiver before Robinson’s injury, but in the last five games he completed 75 of 126 passes for 1,219 yards. He tossed 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
This year Gardner will have to prove himself over an entire season, and head coach Brady Hoke said the coaching staff is doing well with the alterations to the offense, just as they did a few years ago.
“They’ve always been comfortable with it,” Hoke said. “I think [offensive coordinator] Al [Borges], probably that first two years, went back to the drawing board a little bit and really studied some of the things that would help our offensive and obviously with Denard as the quarterback. He did a nice job with that, the terminology and everything, back to where the offense will more shape up and look like. I think it’s been real positive.”
Hoke also had a reasonably upbeat take on Gardner’s performance, mainly because of the starting experience he gained last season. The leadership and mental toughness needed from the position over the grind of the full season, though, will be a different kind of experience.
“Is he where he needs to be yet? No. Is he capable? Yes,” Hoke continued. “I don’t think there is any doubt — from intelligence and football, his knowledge and how he thinks it and works it. This will be a real big telling point of where he is as a quarterback.”
To learn more and get farther ahead, Gardner on many occasions picked the brain of Robinson, who was his roommate.
“We talk all the time,” Gardner said. “It’s not like I can’t call him right now. I’ve been around him for three years. I’ve watched him lead and been right there next to him. I don’t need to call him all the time to get his advice. He’s got another job to do right now that he’s working on, so I try not to bother him too much.”
Gardner watched Robinson carefully over the past few seasons and studied how the quarterback handled failure in addition to success.
“He was amazing about it,” Gardner said. “I don’t know how many guys could have taken the bashing he took and still stay the same guy, smiling and being happy all the time. He faced adversity and he responded.
“That’s how we want to be as a football team,” Gardner added. “When we face adversity, we want to be able to respond at all times.”
This season Michigan will try to respond to high expectations. The Wolverines have not won the Big Ten Championship in nine years, an egregious offense to loyal followers. This year the preseason favorite for the league champion is Ohio State, which last year was undefeated but ineligible for a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.
Michigan and Ohio State play in Michigan Stadium, widely known as the “Big House,” on Nov. 30. Needless to say, that game could have significant implications in the outcome of that Big Ten title.
“Our goal is to win the championship, and we haven’t done it,” Hoke said. “We’ve failed in the last nine years because that’s an expectation. I think you’re always motivated when you talk about Ohio, no matter what’s being said, you’re motivated, so that the last Saturday in November you play your best football.”
If Gardner can play his best football in the meantime, it should go a long way toward making that final game of the regular season a meaningful one.