CHICAGO — Like anyone else simply searching for an opportunity, Devin Gardner toyed with the idea of leaving Michigan as he anxiously waited his turn.
“I would look at other offenses and say, ‘Man I’m better than that quarterback,'” Gardner said with a smile. “But the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”
Instead of leaving, however, Gardner decided to stick it out in Ann Arbor, a decision that could pay off huge for the QB and the school in 2013. Interestingly enough, his decision to stay was greatly influenced by Denard Robinson, the man who prolonged his opportunity to start.
“Denard would tell me that this was going to be my team one day,” Gardner said. “He always told me not to let my dream slip away and be ready when the opportunity came.”
The competitive nature between the two didn’t stop them from being friends, “brothers” even, as Gardner expressed his gratitude for his influence. They shared a closeness that went well beyond the field.
The two quarterbacks were recruited by former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, although it was Robinson’s early explosion on the college football scene that decided the QB race in an instant. For Gardner, this meant a drastic change in mind-set.
“I had never been second string in my entire life,” he said.
Throughout this time, including much of the 2012 season, Gardner made the switch to wide receiver so the team could utilize his 6’4” frame and speed. Gardner hauled in four touchdown passes, good for second on the team, before switching positions again. “I like to make fun of the wide receivers for that,” Gardner joked.
His chance to play quarterback finally came last season in November when Robinson dealt with a persistent nerve injury. In turn, Gardner’s audition for the 2013 starting job came—and he performed exceptionally well.
In the final five games—including Michigan’s near upset of South Carolina in the Outback Bowl—Gardner totaled 18 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
The momentum of his performance, regardless of the lack of reps and true familiarity with the finer points of playing quarterback, has many—including Michigan head coach Brady Hoke—excited about his potential.
The Denard Robinson era is giving way for the Devin Gardner era, and the result could be as dynamic of an offense as Michigan has had in some time.
This seems strange given the highlight-reel nature of Robinson, although Hoke believes Gardner’s spectacular and deep skill set will result in more creativity on that side of the ball.
“Devin was recruited to run the spread offense, and he has that ability,” Hoke noted. “Philosophically we will be a downhill team in 2013, under center more, but the spread will still be in place. We’ll keep people honest.”
After earning the starting quarterback nod with his play, Gardner enters fall camp in a unique position: The first-team reps are all his.
He’s no longer looking over someone’s shoulder, and there’s no one looking over his. This is his team.
Protecting him will be Taylor Lewan, the nation’s premier left tackle. He has stability, protection and intriguing pieces around him on offense, and the result could be a monster season from one of the nation’s true wild-cards.
Although after his performance at the end of the season, maybe he isn’t much of a wild-card at all.
Taking the excitement over his potential as a full-time quarterback one step further, Gardner earlier this year was granted a redshirt for the medical hardship. The redshirt junior has two years of eligibility left. The Devin Gardner era is here.
“I never forgot how to play quarterback, Gardner said. “It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life.”
He will get to do it once again in 2013, finally. The wait is over.
*Adam Kramer is the lead college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first hand