Quarterback Devin Gardner began the season leading Michigan to a 59-9 shellacking of Central Michigan, followed by a near-perfect performance in a 41-30 victory over Notre Dame. Michigan was ranked in the top 25, and Gardner was mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate.
But early success gave way to struggles against Akron and UConn, exposing flaws—the poor offensive line play, inconsistent running attack, porous secondary—that would lead to Michigan dropping five out of its last seven games.
Gardner, who started the season with such promise, turned the ball over on the final drive of Michigan’s last two games—killing any chance of victory.
The Ohio State game was the perfect example of Gardner’s mixed results this season. By any measure Gardner performed at an elite level, tallying up impressive passing totals (32-of-45 for 451 yards and four touchdowns) and rushing for another touchdown. But with a chance to steal a victory from Ohio State, he threw an interception on a two-point conversion play that could have put Michigan ahead in the final minute.
The last play erased an amazing performance, much like the near-losses to Akron and UConn made people discount his performances against Central Michigan and Notre Dame.
Worse yet, Gardner was injured against Ohio State and isn’t expected to return to the practice until next week.
There’s no questioning Gardner’s toughness. He was under constant pressure playing behind an offensive line that leaked defenders like a sieve. Gardner was sacked 34 times this season and was hit seemingly after almost every pass.
Gardner has proved that he’s physically tough, but he needs to improve before next season for Michigan to beat rivals Ohio State and Michigan State—and maybe demand some improvement from his coaches as well.
Stop locking on receivers
Gardner makes the fatal mistake of locking on to his intended receiver. This is especially dangerous when throwing to the flat, where interceptions can quickly turn into touchdowns going the other way.
Stop the awkward retreats
When Gardner is under pressure, he moves awkwardly in the pocket. Sometimes he completely spins around losing vision downfield. Other times he shuffles and takes himself out of position to pass or is forced to throw the ball away.
Step up in the pocket
On the rare occasion that the offensive line did block, Gardner sometimes missed opportunities to step up in the pocket. This goes with the last point of him moving awkwardly when under pressure. After seeing Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner struggle with basic technique the last two seasons, Michigan should bring in a dedicated quarterback coach to work full time on the nuances of the position.
Stop being a passenger in Al Borges' offense
This might be the most difficult of all. Great quarterbacks not only know their limitations but the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates. Gardner needs to step up and play an active role in providing input to Michigan’s offensive game plan. Last season, quarterback Denard Robinson acquiesced to offensive coordinator Al Borges’ plan for him to move under center...and the offense stalled.
After a full season as starter, Gardner may be the only person who can push back on the inconsistent play-calling that plagued the Michigan offense this season.
Coach Hoke frequently talks about accountability, a good example is an interview he gave to The New York Times during his first season:
We are Michigan. We are the winningest program in college football. We are accountable to that. As coaches, players, managers, trainers, grounds crew, anybody who is involved. We’re all accountable to the standards and expectations that Michigan has.
Accountability goes both ways. Gardner has put his body and soul on the line for Michigan this season and paid a heavy price. After hearing him speak with the media following the Iowa and Ohio State games, he obviously holds himself accountable for Michigan’s losses.
But for Michigan to beat Ohio State and Michigan State next season, he needs to improve his game and start demanding the same accountability from his coaches.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conference Source.