There were not very many reasons for fans of the Michigan Wolverines to be excited after second-year head coach Brady Hoke's squad suffered a brutal 41-14 beatdown at the hands of the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide on national television to open their 2012 campaign. However, one bright spot for the maize and blue was Devin Gardner's debut at wide receiver.
Senior quarterback Denard Robinson threw seven passes to Gardner, who is also listed as Michigan's back-up signal-caller, but several of those attempts were off the mark. As a result, the former Inkster star finished the game with just one catch for 44 yards and one touchdown.
"He was open," Robinson said after the game according to Andy Reid of TheWolverine.com. "I've got to give him the ball. I know he can make big plays."
Gardner showed good route-running ability in his first career game as a wide receiver and nearly made one of the top plays of the game when he leaped up for a jump ball along the sideline that was broken up by Dee Millner.
The 6'4", 203-pounder's only catch came after a physical battle off the line with an Alabama defensive back, who later stumbled while covering Gardner near the sideline. Robinson's throw was relatively on-target, and Gardner adjusted to the ball near the goal line to haul in the 44-yard touchdown reception late in the third quarter.
"I think he played pretty well," Robinson said. "It was his first time playing in a real game as a receiver. We'll see more from him."
Entering Saturday's tilt with the Crimson Tide, the Michigan coaching staff refused to tip their hand and reveal exactly how much time Gardner would see at wideout this season.
Once the game kicked off and Michigan's offense took the field for the first time, it became clear that Gardner's role as a receiver on Team 133 would be much more significant than the occasional trick play and "deuce" package—a formation in which Gardner and Robinson are both on the field for the Wolverines—appearances the junior was relegated to last season.
"I think Devin's a pretty special athlete," Hoke said. "To get another athlete on the field helps us."
It is also clear that Gardner will be an afterthought at quarterback for the Wolverines this season, despite being listed as Robinson's immediate backup.
Robinson appeared to sustain an injury in the third quarter, but it was redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy who began to warm up on the sidelines instead of Gardner.
Additionally, once most of Michigan's starters were out of the game in the fourth quarter Bellomy came in at quarterback for the Wolverines and threw an interception on his only play of the game.
Michigan's receiving corps is starving for a playmaker, and Gardner appears to have the height, speed and leaping ability to be a legitimate threat to stretch the field and haul in more of Robinson's deep passes this year.
There aren't many defenses on Michigan's schedule that will be as good as Alabama's, and the fact that Gardner continued to get open, and give Robinson a big target to throw the football to, is a great sign for the Wolverines as they prepare for games against Air Force, Massachusetts and Notre Dame this month.
Zach Dirlam is the former Lead Editor of the College Basketball section as well as a Big Ten columnist for the FOX Sports/MSN/YardBarker affiliate website Sports at Work.
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