The last time Nebraska saw the Michigan football team, Denard Robinson was nursing his elbow on the sideline. Russell Bellomy was firing balls into the band. And Devin Gardner was helpless to change it.
Gardner, once the top dual-threat quarterback prospect in the country, had moved to wide receiver in the summer of 2012, desperate to get on the field after two years behind Robinson.
What seemed a cagey move — he caught touchdowns in his first three games — suddenly looked like the ultimate backfire.
Bellomy, the freshman, completed as many passes to Huskers (three) that night as he did to Wolverines. Michigan recorded four first downs after halftime and lost control of the Legends Division race. In a disappointing 8-5 season, it may have been the low point.
There was, however, one silver lining. Michigan could've entered 2013 with a quarterback quandary. Instead, the events of that loss gave Gardner a head start on being The Man.
Two days after the Nebraska loss, Gardner, who hadn't practiced at quarterback all season, got a call from offensive coordinator Al Borges. Robinson was hurt. So was Bellomy. You're starting, Borges said.
“I was like, 'I better not mess this up,'?” Gardner said last week at Big Ten media days.
He produced 255 yards of total offense at Minnesota, then exceeded 300 against Northwestern and Iowa. Season-ending losses to Ohio State and South Carolina didn't diminish the Wolverines' optimism in Gardner.
The Detroit native, who graduated college in 3 1/2 years, is comfortable in the limelight. He's a “loud, outspoken guy,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. This summer, he stirred the pot in Ohio when he told a Michigan radio station that the Wolverines “will win in the Big House against Ohio State.”
Said Gardner at Big Ten media days: “The media's gonna make a story in a time like that where there's nothing going on but baseball. I'm not gonna retract my statement. I never said 'promise.' I never said 'guarantee.' I said 'We're gonna work hard and we're gonna do our best.' And I do believe we're gonna win the game. That's not arrogant. I'm confident in my football team.”
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If any player answers the question differently, Gardner said, he shouldn't be on the team.
Off the field, he may be more brash than Robinson. On the field, he's more of a prototypical quarterback.
“Denard's very, very fast and Devin's just very fast,” Lewan said.
Advantage Robinson, right? Well, maybe not. Gardner is 6-foot-4 and throws a tighter spiral, coach Brady Hoke said. His pocket-passing gifts are partly why Michigan is moving away from a spread attack toward a pro-style offense.
Gardner this summer attended the Elite 11 camp in Oregon and the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana. He worked 1-on-1 with the same Michigan receivers with whom he was running routes last fall. (He likes to remind them he led the team in touchdown receptions through eight games.)
Gardner always intended to return to quarterback, but he enjoyed the experiment at receiver.
“I got a chance to show how tough I am,” he said. “I got a chance to pancake a few guys.”
He's earned his teammates' respect, not only for switching positions — “He really showed a lot of unselfishness,” Hoke said — but also for sticking it out when he could've transferred. In 2010, Gardner lost the quarterback job to Robinson, then watched Denard put up a combined 885 total yards on Connecticut and Notre Dame.
Face it, most quarterbacks behind the sophomore Robinson would've left. Gardner considered it. But his older brother and Robinson encouraged him to bide his time. Wait for his opportunity, then maximize it.
Gardner knew he'd have 2013. Then in March, he received a medical redshirt from the NCAA for an injury in 2010. That gives him two full years to accomplish what Robinson couldn't — win a Big Ten title.
Gardner doesn't have much leisure time. But he's hooked on the EA Sports video game “NCAA Football 14” — the one with Denard on the cover. The game ranks Gardner as an impact player, which satisfied him.
He tried last year's edition, he said, but he was so bad he quit playing altogether. This year, he's 7-1 against roommate Cameron Gordon.
“I probably should stop while I'm ahead,” Gardner said.
He knows better. He's still making up for lost time.