Under the control of quarterback Denard Robinson, the Michigan offense was energetic but limited. The speedster wowed crowds with his athleticism, but coaches had to tinker with different looks to make the offense more effective for Shoelace, who didn’t quite have the arm for the envisioned passing game.
A savant of the spread caught in the midst of a change in operation, coaching staff and culture, Robinson made the most of an imperfect situation—and he did it in style, amassing more than 10,000 yards of total offense and 91 touchdowns (49 rushing).
This season doesn’t bring the same level of uncertainty as in years past. Ripe for success, Devin Gardner is an ideal athlete for coordinator Al Borges’ dream scheme. With restless nights likely at a minimum, coach Brady Hoke and Borges should be comfortable knowing that Gardner is indeed their guy for the next two seasons.
Make no mistake about it, Gardner will get crowds on their feet in 2013. He may not do it in the same manner as Robinson—who was a 50-yard play waiting to happen—but he’ll certainly be easier on the nerves. With Robinson, it was difficult to predict outcomes. The Wolverines typically hung by a thread, hoping for a long pass or run from him to push them over the brink.
Times have changed. Robinson’s contributions won’t be forgotten, but Michigan’s fate is in better hands with Gardner at the helm. His five-game sample from 2012 has sparked endless debate. Critics doubt he can sustain that level of performance for a whole season. But there nothing to suggest that he won't.
Joshua Henschke of The Big House Report recently discussed Gardner’s potential with Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network.
Yarina spoke highly of Gardner’s experience and is excited about his future:
It was a small sample size, but what a sample size it was. To me, what Gardner did in his five starts last season, throwing for 1,219 yards and 11 TDs, was nothing short of extraordinary. This is a guy who went from being a full-time receiver in late October to a highly productive quarterback the rest of the way, and he did it with literally no preparation. He also showed he can make plays with his feet, adding seven touchdowns on the ground.
Needless to say, it’ll be fascinating to see what Gardner can do now that he’s had a full offseason to prepare as the quarterback and he can dedicate 100 percent of his time and energy to the position.
Comparing numbers isn't apples-to-apples. Robinson and Gardner are very different athletes, but they do share similar athleticism. Under Gardner, the pass will be a true threat, not a second option. And with a rising group of running backs, Gardner won't have to risk life and limb while running to make a play.
Gardner vs. Shoelace
Robinson finished his career with a completion rate of 57 percent. During his short tenure as No. 1 in 2012, Gardner completed 59.5 percent of his passes. There isn’t a huge difference there. And, obviously, Robinson’s rate was over four years, not five games.
In 2010 and 2011, his most productive years, Robinson never attempted more than 291 passes. Gardner attempted 126 in five game. That’s the type of attack Borges wants from his quarterback.
Passing stats via Sports-Reference.com
As for rushing stats, there is no real reason to compare them. Not even close. But a quarterback's primary purpose is to throw the ball, not run with it. That's why teams have running backs. It's safe to say that Michigan won't have a Robinson-style quarterback during Hoke's tenure.
Productivity through the air will be paramount.
Gardner in 2013?
It'd be smart to project Gardner eclipsing Robinson's best years through the air. Take Gardner's stats and multiply them by 2.4 to account for the seven games he didn't play quarterback in the 12-game season. In 2012, he went 3-1 in the regular season before losing 33-28 to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
Also, it's important to keep in mind that he was just getting started. This season, 30 attempts could be the norm. He averaged 25.2 attempts per game last year, and the numbers are projected from that average.
The Wolverines are primed for a run at a Big Ten championship. Behind Gardner's strong arm, that goal is most certainly attainable. Forecasting a great fall for the offense is easy. When Gardner started, Michigan averaged 32.8 points per game, about three more than the season average.
That may not seem like a monumental improvement. However, an extra field goal can make a world of difference. Ask the 2012 Michigan State Spartans, who went 2-4 in games decided by three or fewer points. Michigan posted a 1-2 record in games decided by five or fewer points.
Gardner extends drives. He makes a difference. The offense will feel his presence.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81