As the Michigan Wolverines’ quarterback, the pressure to excel is on Devin Gardner, a redshirt junior entering his first full season as a starter.
He has just five starts on his resume, but he’s certainly already one of the better signal-callers in the Big Ten.
Braxton Miller, a proven star who led Ohio State to a 12-0 season in 2012, is the popular pick as the Big Ten's top QB. But don’t discount Gardner, an incredibly athletic and confident representative of coach Brady Hoke’s program.
Not only does Gardner have the potential to be an elite quarterback locally, he has what it takes to be one nationally, just like Miller.
However, Gardner has his doubters. 247Sports.com has a thread dedicated to settling the debate, asking: Is Gardner overrated or underrated? Does Miller have a bigger upside?
Well, it depends on whom you ask.
Miller vs. Gardner
Odds and Ends
Gardner has a 3-2 record as a starter. As the 2012 regular season wound down, the 6’4”, 203-pounder posted a 3-1 mark as Denard Robinson’s reliever, throwing for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Although he attempted just 126 passes, Gardner led the Big Ten in efficiency, posting an impressive 161.7 rating.
That was 20 points better than the 141.6 rating of Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, who was third in the Big Ten in that category. Minnesota’s Marquise Gray was second with a rating of 146, but he threw just 59 times—so he’s out for the sake of this argument.
In 2012, Miller, a 6’2”, 215-pounder, threw for 2,039 yards and 15 touchdowns, finishing No. 4 in efficiency with a 140.5 rating. The Buckeyes' superstar junior also rushed for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The First Three Starts
Note: This comparison is based on each player’s first three starts, a fair gauge of how long it takes a quarterback to get comfortable with his new job. It also provides a basis to forecast Gardner’s future compared to Miller’s.
On Sept. 24, 2011, his first start, Miller helped Ohio State bulldoze Colorado, 37-17. He wasn’t overly efficient with his arm, completing just five of 13 attempts, but he threw for 83 yards and two touchdowns. He carried the ball 17 times, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, en route to team-high 83 yards.
Miller doesn’t necessarily have to put up astronomical numbers to get the job done. Improvisation is his specialty. Teams pay dearly for giving him the slightest opportunity to make a play.
On Nov. 3, 2012, in his first true start, Gardner dismantled Minnesota, completing 12 of 18 passes for 234 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Michigan’s 35-13 victory. It was against a Big Ten bottom-feeder, but it was a solid debut.
Winner: Gardner’s first start was impressive, but he had two years of practice at the college level. Miller was a true freshman (early enrollee), so the nod goes to Miller because he won despite his lack of experience.
Miller’s second start didn’t go as well as his first. No, the Michigan State Spartans’ defense made sure of that, forcing him to make short and hurried throws. He completed just five of 10 attempts, averaging a paltry 5.6 yards per connection in the 10-7 loss.
Facing a different type of challenge, Gardner had to make the most of every possession in his second start, a date with Northwestern, a team with an at-times prolific offense. In an overtime thriller, Gardner’s one-yard rushing touchdown was the difference in Michigan’s 38-31 triumph.
Just getting his feet wet as the go-to guy, Gardner dissected the Wildcats’ defense, completing 16 of 29 passes for 286 yards and two scores. He also rushed for a touchdown in regulation.
Winner: Although Miller faced one of the country’s top defenses, Gardner had to overcome a still-improving Michigan defense that just couldn’t stop Northwestern from throwing crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Gardner takes the win.
In his third start, less was more for Miller, who put the finishing touches on a hard-fought 17-7 victory over Illinois with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jake Stonebrunner in the fourth quarter. It was Miller’s only completion (1-for-4).
Consider Gardner’s third start as his coming-out party; he ravaged Iowa with 314 passing yards and six touchdowns (three rushing) in the 42-17 throttling of Iowa, which entered the day at 4-6. It was easily one of the best performances of the year, regardless of position or school.
Winner: Gardner, obviously. A six-touchdown game is rare. Although Miller needed one flick of the wrist to hold back Illinois, Gardner’s escapades were truly special.
Miller was 2-1 in his first three games; he’s obviously gone on to have a superb career in Columbus. Gardner was 3-0 and looks like he’s on a similar pace.
The knock on Miller is his lack of consistency in the pocket and absence of accuracy. He more than makes up for it with his wheels, though. Gardner can run, but not like Miller. Despite having a nearly identical completion rate (just under 60 percent) in 2012, Gardner has shown a greater ability to thread the needle than Miller.
At this point, it’s early to crown a true winner. Miller has a larger body of work, which equals more production than Gardner.
In January, Gardner was serviceable in a 33-28 Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina, completing 18 of 36 attempts for 214 yards and three scores against a formidable SEC defense.
Due to sanctions, Miller didn’t a chance to showcase his skills in the postseason.
But thanks to a hotter push from the get-go, Gardner could have a more successful college career than Miller, a 2014 NFL draft prospect.
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81