Devin Gardner has learned that being a leader doesn't mean that he needs to do everything himself.
The last time Michigan played Notre Dame, Gardner had one of the best games of his career, leading the Wolverines in both passing and rushing yards. On last year’s squad Gardner had to be Superman for Michigan to win.
But under Doug Nussmeier’s new offensive scheme Gardner needs to be more Clark Kent—a mild-mannered part of the team, showing leadership by allowing his teammates to shine.
After a restless offseason, Michigan unveiled its new offense during a cathartic 52-14 bludgeoning of Appalachian State last week. Lost in the statistics was Gardner’s rushing totals, as he had five carries for nine yards.
Last season that stat line would have translated into a crushing defeat. But now, leading an offense built to feature his talented teammates, Gardner has been freed up to manage the game and has immersed himself in learning the team’s new streamlined offense.
His knowledge of the playbook allowed him to make a key adjustment that resulted in a huge play against Appalachian State.
"I think the one, biggest offensive play of the game was when Devin checked us out of a play," said Hoke. “On a 3rd-and-1, in the third quarter and then he checked us into a great play that goes for 60, and it was communicated all the way down the front, out to the Mike point and to the wide receivers and how that was going to block out. ... When you look at that communication, his awareness, that was big.”
Last season Gardner repeatedly put the team on his back, relying on his talent and playmaking ability to win games. For a while, it worked. But as Michigan’s offensive line deteriorated, the season took a toll on Gardner physically and emotionally. His season ended after being injured during a gutsy performance against Ohio State.
Gardner returned motivated to lead his teammates and humbled by the talent surrounding him.
Last week he grudgingly acknowledged that he was no longer the best athlete on the team when questioned about freshman defensive back Jabrill Peppers.
"Him and [Devin] Funchess are probably the top two athletes on the team,” said Gardner. “I kind of get pissed a little bit, because I used to always like to think I was the top athlete on the team. But these two guys…they’re pretty elite."
Last year Hoke admonished Gardner for trying to do too much and taking unnecessary risks in attempting to make big plays, “but Superman has to be smart too. He doesn't eat kryptonite.”
The new offense allows Gardner share the load with receiver Funchess, running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith and tight end Jake Butt, who will soon return from an ACL injury.
Surrounded by an arsenal of talented offensive weapons, Gardner’s key contribution is now leadership.
On Saturday against Notre Dame, we'll get an indication of how far that leadership can take the Wolverines this season.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via Press Conferences or in person.
All season statistics from MGoBlue.com, official University of Michigan athletic department website.