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The Curious Case of Devin Gardner

There’s a saying that the most popular guy in town is the back-up quarterback. Nowhere is that sentiment more true, or more off the mark, than in Ann Arbor.

Gregory Shamus

In his first full season as starting quarterback, Devin Gardner threw for 2,960 yards, rushed for 483 more and had a hand in 32 touchdowns, 21 through the air and 11 on the ground.  Gardner set a school record with 503 yards passing against Indiana, but his season wasn't one that was defined by padding his statistics against lower-echelon teams.  Gardner saved his best performances for Michigan's biggest games, passing for 294 yards, rushing for 82 and accounting for five touchdowns in Michigan's 41-30 victory over Notre Dame and delivering perhaps the best performance of his career against Ohio State, throwing for 451 yards and accounting for another five scores, much of which, it turns out, was accomplished on a broken foot.  Michigan came up short in its upset bid against the Buckeyes, losing 42-41 after its last-second, two-point conversion attempt failed, but if there were to be fingers pointed, they should have been pointed at a defense that surrendered nearly 400 rushing yards rather than at Gardner, who, like he had done all season, virtually single-handedly kept Michigan in the game.  Yet when it was clear that Gardner would miss the Wolverines' bowl game due to injuries suffered against the Buckeyes, the sentiment among many Michigan fans wasn't one of despair or even concern, but rather excitement that redshirt freshman Shane Morris would get his first collegiate start.

It's one thing for fans to criticize a rival player, highlighting his weaknesses or failures while ignoring his strengths or achievements, but Gardner received that sort of treatment from his own fan base.  In season in which so little went right for the Wolverines, why was there so little appreciation for one of the few bright spots, a talented quarterback who, more often than not, performed well?  Or more succinctly, why so little love for Devin Gardner?

It's no secret that Michigan has struggled.  Expected to challenge for the Big Ten title under Brady Hoke, the Wolverines have staggered to 11 losses over the past two seasons, including seven in conference play, never seriously challenging for a conference championship in either season.  And as if that wasn't bad enough, Michigan had to watch its two rivals play for the conference championship last year, with not only a berth in the Rose Bowl hanging in the balance, but a possible berth in the national championship game as well.  With this as a backdrop, it's as if the fans needed a scapegoat.  Rich Rodriguez has been a popular target for Michigan fans' ire, but Rodriguez has now been gone for as many years as he was in Ann Arbor, and his shadow diminishes with each passing year.  That seems to leave Gardner to shoulder the failures of the team.

But while Michigan has struggled, it has not done so because of Gardner, but rather because the Wolverines were a flawed team.  Built in the image of Michigan teams of the past, Hoke's Wolverines had designs on owning the line of scrimmage.  That has proven to be anything but the case, however, as a young and inexperienced offensive line has been unable to generate any semblance of a traditional, between-the-tackles running game.  If you didn't watch Michigan play much last year, it's hard to understand exactly how porous the offensive line was.  It's not that Michigan had difficulty producing 100-yard rushers game in and game out, but rather that Michigan had trouble getting back to the line of scrimmage.  In 2013, Michigan led the nation with 174 rushing plays that resulted in zero or negative yardage.  And the offensive line was only slightly more successful protecting the quarterback, allowing 36 sacks, good for 109th in the country.  Sure, Gardner made mistakes, throwing 11 interceptions and losing 11 fumbles (one more than conference player of the year Braxton Miller), but he was constantly under pressure to make plays.  I wrote last year that Gardner's biggest crime might be that he has yet to overcome his desire to do too much, and still tries to make the spectacular play when the safe play would be more prudent.  But can you blame him for taking chances?  Without even a threat of a running game, what was he to do?  This was not a "grind it out, win the battle of field position" kind of team.  If Michigan was going to score, it was going to do so by gaining yards in chunks and connecting on big plays.  Under those circumstances, how many quarterbacks would excel?

Yet there were those who felt Gardner was more responsible for Michigan's six losses than he was for their seven wins, and that a change in quarterback was all Michigan needed to right the ship.  Never mind that Gardner's back-up, Shane Morris, was a true freshman with virtually no game experience.  Even Taylor Lewan seemed to pile on, recently saying of Morris, "I think he can be one hell of a quarterback, honestly.  I'm excited for him and I'm really excited for the University of Michigan."

Morris is extremely talented and is likely to have a successful career at Michigan, but he wasn't the answer last season.  And for those clamoring for him to unseat Gardner this fall, he's not the answer this season either.  Because while Michigan started one of the youngest offensive lines in the nation last year, it will start an even younger and more inexperienced one this year, as the Wolverines replace two senior tackles.  Youth may have been served in Westwood last year, as UCLA was able to find success with a freshman-laden offensive line, but it wasn't served in Ann Arbor, and it likely won't again, at least not to the standard of offensive line play at Michigan.  Meaning whoever plays quarterback will once again have more pressure to create than any quarterback in the conference, if not the country.

In Gardner, Michigan has a mobile, fifth-year senior with a history of performing best when the lights are brightest.  Morris, for all his promise, is an untested sophomore with little mobility and less game experience.  The simple fact is, Gardner gives Michigan its best chance at victory any given Saturday, and should the Wolverines have a successful season, it will largely be through the efforts of its fifth-year senior quarterback.  The question is, if that happens, will he get the credit he's due?