For the first time in a long time, the Michigan Wolverines will enter a new season without Denard Robinson suiting up at quarterback. Devin Gardner, who replaced Robinson late in the year while "Shoelace" struggled with an injury, will now become the full-time starter at the position.
Now the question remains: Where does he rank among all of the quarterbacks entering the 2013 season? The answer would be somewhere right in the middle.
Truthfully, I'm not sure anybody knows what to expect from Gardner at the moment. Not I, not the folks out in Ann Arbor, I'm not even sure the coaching staff can quite put their finger on it just yet.
Gardner only played in five games at quarterback last season, providing us with only a small sample size of things to go off of. In limited action, everything happened so quickly. There were impressive moments, and then there were things that reminded you why he spent a lot of time at wide receiver.
The positives were that he was able to lead the Wolverines to a solid 3-2 record and somewhat save a season that didn't go according to plan. He completed a decent 59.5 percent of his passes and scored 18 total touchdowns as a quarterback. Gardner was able to show that he has similar athletic ability as Robinson and can make plays with his feet, but is also a much more polished passer than Robinson ever was.
To be able to put up those types of numbers in such a short time frame is impressive. But what makes it even more remarkable is the fact that he was thrown into the fire when Robinson went down. While backups are always supposed to remain ready, you rarely see a guy be able to step in right away and not miss a beat.
His performances were better than anything Robinson had to offer throughout the year, and has provided Wolverines fans with hope entering the new season.
However, there are some concerns. Gardner did show that he can channel his inner Robinson at times and throw a lollypop up for grabs. The second play of the highlight reel above (17 seconds) shows him throwing a ball against Northwestern that could have easily been intercepted. He also did the same thing in this play against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the bowl game.
If he is truly going to be an elite quarterback, he must learn to throw things away and make better decisions with the ball. Often a bad trait that Robinson had throughout his Michigan career, this is something that can be easily fixed, but can turn into a costly habit if not corrected.
Another thing that must be taken into consideration is the fact Gardner wasn't exactly playing world-beaters in the Big Ten. Northwestern had the worst pass defense in the conference, Iowa was ranked seventh and Minnesota had allowed its fair share of big passing performances as well. Nebraska managed to throw for more than 300 yards against the Golden Gophers and Texas Tech completed 68 percent of its passes.
In the game against an underachieved, but talented Ohio State team, Gardner wasn't effective at all on the ground (minus-28 rushing yards), and it was the only game he threw for less than 200 yards. He also made that terrible read against South Carolina and only completed 50 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks had a defense that was ranked 11th in the country, and Gardner proved to struggle throughout the game with the consistent pressure in his face.
Gardner hasn't provided enough to hand out a fair grade. And with the few games we have seen him play, he has given us a bag full of mixed goodies. We have seen that he could develop into a better Robinson, somebody who can kill you with his legs and actually throw an accurate football. But we have seen that he will force it at times and can get rattled when the pressure gets to him.
The one thing to absolutely love about Gardner is that he does have the ability to throw a beautiful ball. Last year, defenses cheated a bit due to him being a threat to take off, and he absolutely made them pay by putting the ball right on the numbers. If he can continue to take advantage of wide-open receivers, he could turn into something special.
So where does the Michigan signal-caller rank right now?
It is really hard to tell. You can't put him in the elite class with guys such as Johnny Manziel, Tajh Boyd or Aaron Murray, guys who have proven themselves over an extended period of time. However, you can make an argument that he could give Braxton Miller a run for the best quarterback in the Big Ten. He also has much more upside than Logan Thomas, somebody who was at one point high on NFL draft boards.
This kid has the tools to quickly rise up the totem pole and make the people of Ann Arbor extremely proud.
Gardner enters the 2013 season with a big question mark on his forehead, but you have to love the potential that he carries with him.
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