Back in the middle of September, we wrote that Devin Gardner should more fully embrace his move to wide receiver since that's basically his only shot at playing at the next level. And he should! Gardner has the physical ability to be a great wideout in the NFL; now it's just a matter of learning the position and its nuances.
So naturally, Denard Robinson goes down with an ulnar nerve injury against Nebraska on Saturday, and now it's back to QB for Gardner, per Kyle Meinke of AnnArbor.com:
Brady Hoke, on division of QB snaps in practice: "Denard took some, Devin took a lot, Russell took a couple."— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) October 31, 2012
Just like moving to wide receiver was the right move for Gardner, moving back to quarterback is also the right move for him. The reason is simple: It's all about maximizing Gardner's value to the team.
Gardner can play both WR and QB at a decent level. He's not great at either yet, and his ceiling appears to be lower at QB long-term. But he's decent at both places right now, and right now is all that's important to this discussion as Michigan prepares for a trip to Minnesota this week.
Michigan gets no production from Gardner if he stays on the bench as a backup quarterback, and his level of play in both the 2011 season (11-of-23, 176 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 25 rushes, 53 yards, 1 TD) was so far off Denard Robinson's pace that Gardner didn't appear to be a long-term answer at QB.
Michigan does get production from Gardner if he's playing big-time minutes at WR, though, and although his pace has slowed in Big Ten play, he's still an integral part of the offense with 16 catches for 266 yards and four TDs through eight games.
That move to wideout looked to be a success even if Robinson were to go down with an injury, since Russell Bellomy looked better than Gardner at QB at Michigan's spring game and freed Gardner to focus on moving to receiver.
Unfortunately, Bellomy then had to come in for Robinson and promptly turned in one of the worst quarterbacking performances in Wolverine history with a 3-for-14, three interception effort in Michigan's 23-9 loss to Nebraska that tilted the Legends Division title race toward the Huskers.
Bellomy probably wouldn't play that poorly against Minnesota. But he did against Nebraska, and he hasn't played well elsewhere this season. We know Gardner's pace wasn't great as a backup quarterback last year...but it was worlds better than that.
So, not only does Gardner now have demonstrable value at quarterback for Michigan again, his value as a wide receiver tails off dramatically without Robinson at QB. He didn't have a catch with Bellomy in the game until late in the fourth quarter, when Nebraska's secondary was just basically sitting in the end zone and making sure the Wolverines didn't hit a big play.
Productivity as a quarterback doesn't happen when you're on the bench. Getting on the field as a wideout doesn't automatically equal increased productivity either, especially when your quarterback can't get you (or any other receiver) the ball with any reliability whatsoever.
And let's be clear—if Gardner goes back to QB for a week, it doesn't invalidate the progress he's made at receiver. He doesn't have to delete that aspect of playbook knowledge from his mental hard drive to make room for his QB responsibilities. He can practice at quarterback and still head back to receiver that very week if Robinson's good to go (which could well be the case).
First and foremost, though, Brady Hoke needs to be able to get the most out of Gardner that he can. When Robinson was healthy, that meant Gardner needed to be a receiver. With Robinson out and Bellomy struggling hard, Gardner needs to be a quarterback. Long-term, yeah, wide receiver is the right call. But long-term is a project for the offseason. Hoke needs his best shot at QB right now if Michigan wants to get to the Big Ten Championship, and that best shot could very well be Gardner.
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