Michigan Football: Is Devin Gardner More Like Denard Than We Think?

Adam Biggers@@AdamBiggers81Senior Analyst IIOctober 1, 2013

Michigan is forcing Devin Gardner to make plays on his feet.
Michigan is forcing Devin Gardner to make plays on his feet.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

They were each recruited by former Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez's staff, but Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson are two completely different players. 

Well, that's what we were to led to believe about the quarterbacks, and consequently, that's what we've thought for the past two seasons. 

But it may not be entirely true. 

Gardner fits the mold of a true pro-styler who can also move. Robinson, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was a mobile threat forced into pocket passing. That didn't work. Using Gardner in the same manner as Robinson hasn't worked for Michigan, either. 

Although he's the team's second-leading rusher with 49 carries for 301 yards and five touchdowns, Gardner isn't—let's repeat that—isn't a running quarterback, despite being classified as a dual-threat signal-caller. 

It's possible that Rodriguez saw Gardner—who stands 6'4" and weighs 210 pounds—as a bigger and better version of Robinson, who was 6'0" on a good day and was nearly 15 pounds lighter than his successor. 

Brady Hoke, now entering his third year as the Wolverines' head coach, has expressed the desire to move toward a pro-style set, something more suited for Gardner's skills. Offensive coordinator Al Borges, also in his third year at Michigan, has echoed similar thoughts

However, to the fans' dismay, it seems as if the offense may slip back to Shoelace Mode. Borges said the following to reporters, according to MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner, about quarterbacks playing it as they go when things go awry. 

Spoiler Alert: It sounds a lot like what was said about Robinson.

When the quarterback has to do something that doesn't fit the structure of the play, everybody has to know what to do when that happens, because it's going to happen every third play. I've talked to you guys before about the third pass play.

Great quarterbacks can create on the third pass play when there's a breakdown of protection, route's covered, or something like that.

Borges' statement makes sense. The intent here isn't to knock his plan, but to break down the meaning of his words in order to gain a further understanding of what could have been said in between the lines. 

Great quarterbacks, obviously, find ways to make things happen—no doubt there. Gardner wasn't a celebrated dual-threat while in high school for no reason; he could scoot. But now, with an offensive line that boasts All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan and potential All-Big Ten right tackle Michael Schofield, there shouldn't be such a need to create on the fly. 

It's supposed to be a pro-style offense with two backs and a tight end complementing the receivers. Everyone should be confident and comfortable in knowing that the bruisers up front will do their part, which is keeping Gardner safe in the pocket and allowing backs to flourish. 

November 17, 2012; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke hugs Michigan Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson (16) before the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Thus far, neither has been the case. 

Is 2013 The Second Coming of Denard? Michigan's plans say one thing, but its play on the field says another. It's evident that Borges and Hoke haven't fully let go of the Shoelace playbook. 


Square Peg, Round Hole?

The more Gardner makes mistakes, the more he begins to look completely out of it when it comes to running the offense—which was supposed to be catered to his strengths and the strengths of those around him.

Michigan now has taller, faster and stronger receivers who can catch the deep ball. Gardner has the arm to deliver that deep ball. Jehu Chesson, a 6'3" freshman, has shown capable of becoming a deep-threat option. There's Devin Funchess, a 6'5" sophomore tight end, in the fold as well; he gives the offense choices. 

So what gives?

In 2012, Gardner didn't shy away from going full-out airborne. In fact, he was among Big Ten leaders with an average of 9.68 yards per attempt. That's throwing in an effort to move chains and sustain drives. That's the pro-style offense—and he had less at receiver to work with. 

This season, Gardner averages less than eight yards per attempt, although he's hovering near a 60 percent completion rate. He's thrown eight picks this year, but he threw five as Robinson's five-game reliever a year ago. 


Skimming Numbers

Sep 21, 2013; East Hartford, CT, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner (98) under pressure from Connecticut Huskies defensive tackle Shamar Stephen (59) in the second half at Rentschler Field. Michigan Wolverines defeated the Connecticut Husk
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, Gardner's stats resemble Robinson's old lines. Don't believe it? Well, instead of crunching the numbers, take a look at a post from Gamedayr.com writer Ben Cornfield, who reveals just how similar the numbers are. 

Here's a visual representation of them, just for kicks...

Player A is Gardner. 

The fact Gardner is second in team rushing casts attention toward an ailing run game and an offense that needs a quarterback's feet to win. That was the case while Robinson headed Michigan. There wasn't a dominant running back to speak of, and Robinson supplied most of the power. 

He had to be the hero. 

But hold on one second. Gardner has the same problem. Hoke addressed that issue with reporters, via MLive.com's Baumgardner

You've got guys are are multi-talented, and they've had a lot of success being—I don't want to say loose—but playing a little bit of sandlot football. But, when you play good teams, you can't do that.

It's really hard. There's a fine line. You'd rather try and tame a bucking bronco than an old mare, you know? That's kind of what you have to do.

Hoke's right.

And Michigan would be better off with a guy who has the skills to do it himself, but that shouldn't be necessary. At Inkster High, Gardner carved out a reputation as one of Michigan's premier preps. At that level, it's not uncommon for college-bound stars to essentially make a mockery of the competition. For Gardner, that was easy but probably not his intention. 

He was just better than everyone else, due to no fault of his own. But he may have not envisioned taking on the same role in college. That could be part of the problem. Only he knows for sure.

A struggling offensive line has caused Gardner to reach for his cape. It worked during a 41-30 victory over Notre Dame, but his on-the-run style didn't do much for Michigan's 28-24 win over Akron and 24-21 edging of UConn. 

He leads the FBS with 12 turnovers. Only eight teams—yes, eight teams—have more than Gardner.

Turnovers were also an issue for Robinson, who led the Big Ten with 15 picks in 2011 (sixth in NCAA) and 11 in 2010. He finished his career with an average of 7.3 yards per passing attempt, which is about what Gardner averages this season. 

Gardner may not be The Next Denard—Michigan fans certainly nope not—but he's teetering awfully close to being tagged as such. In the midst of his first full season as starter, Gardner has been forced—both by himself and the staff—to revert to old habits. Once the Wolverines retool their offensive line and find a way to work two backs into the backfield, Gardner could make the leap to being a true pro-style quarterback.

But if adjustments aren't made, he might as well wear No. 16. 


Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.


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