Michigan has found a lot to like about quarterback Devin Gardner, far beyond what he does during a game.
Oh, there's plenty to like there, too, from the 6-foot-4, 210-pound redshirt junior from Detroit. His live arm and fleet feet look like a ready-made fit for the pro-style offense that Wolverine offensive coordinator Al Borges prefers.
In UM's 59-9 romp Saturday over Central Michigan, Gardner threw for 162 yards and one touchdown and ran for a career-high 52 yards and two touchdowns. A much bigger test awaits No. 17 Michigan on Saturday night against No. 14 Notre Dame.
Yet, it's the path that Gardner has traveled to claim the job that impresses those inside the program most.
Coming out of high school, Rivals.com ranked him as the nation's No. 1 dual-threat quarterback, while scout.com listed him as the No. 5 quarterback prospect overall. Even with Denard Robinson ahead of him on the depth chart, Gardner wasn't backing down.
But a knee injury ended his freshman season after three games, while Robinson became an All-American and Big Ten offensive player of the year.
The next season, Gardner saw mostly mop-up duty in nine games, attempting just 23 passes. The lack of action hurt.
“You always have guys who come to college as All-Americans who have never been second string in their life, just like me,” he said. “And they get so discouraged when they aren't able to play right away, just like me.”
Often, this is the point in which you learn a player transferred. Not this time.
“I wasn't going anywhere,” Gardner said. “It was so much better for me to get a Michigan degree and work with Denard. I've grown mentally strong. I've faced a ton of adversity, and you learn it's not something to run away from.”
He even changed positions for a season — to wide receiver — to help his team.
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“Now, I'm doing that with our young guys who are frustrated about not playing,” Gardner said, “telling them to keep fighting and chasing their dreams.”
“Coach Borges always says the aspect of a quarterback that often is overlooked is toughness,” Gardner said. “I think I displayed a big amount of mental toughness.”
Other key traits of true leaders are confidence balanced with humility, plus self-awareness. Read on to see if Gardner, who with a bachelor's degree in hand and is starting on a master's, measures up.
“I haven't done anything,” he said. “We haven't won anything, especially me. I didn't play in the Sugar Bowl two years ago. We lost to Ohio (State) last year, which is our big game. We lost to Notre Dame. We haven't won a Big Ten championship.”
That didn't stop Gardner this summer from “promising” a victory this season over Ohio State. Except that's not really what he said.
“I never said guarantee. I never said promise,” he said. “It was spun the way they wanted. The only statement I was trying to make was I trust my teammates and my coaches.”
Gardner chuckled at the hubbub over an offhand summer remark.
“I was talking to my brother about it, and he's a silly guy like me,” Gardner said. “He says, 'Oh, no, Devin, that was horrible of you to say. Horrible to believe in your team. Horrible to think you'll win.' That was pretty funny.”
Nebraska played a big role in getting Gardner back to quarterback.
When Robinson went out of the game last October in Lincoln with an arm injury, backup Russell Bellomy threw three interceptions and 13 incompletions in the second half of Michigan's 23-9 loss.
The next week, Gardner was back at quarterback and showed enough in the final five games to claim the job for this season.
Could he have played quarterback against Nebraska, despite not having practiced there earlier in the season?
“I don't know how beneficial it would have been for the team,” Gardner said. “I would have been able to throw the ball and run and things. It would have been checking off and when to get out of a play — the intricacies — that I may not have been able to execute.
“But if they would have thrown me in there, I would have given it my best shot.”
The Nebraska loss still eats at the Wolverines.
“It's that one game where, if we would have won, we would have been in a Big Ten championship game,” he said. “And it slipped away. We don't want to be the team to let that opportunity slip away again.”
QBs questions at Michigan State
It's pretty apparent Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is weary of quarterback questions. But having a wide-open depth chart with four candidates entering the second week of the season invites scrutiny.
On Tuesday, in light of the Spartans' sputtering attack in a 26-13 win over Western Michigan, Dantonio listed returning starter and senior Andrew Maxwell as a co-No. 1 with sophomore Connor Cook.
But redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor and true freshman Damion Terry apparently are still in consideration.
Dantonio's short answers Tuesday: He won't reveal how many of the four will get first-team reps this week; quarterbacks won't have full contact; and any discussion of the decision-making process on a starter will remain in house.
Players of the week
Offense: Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. The senior from Kansas City, Mo., threw for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Southern Illinois.
Defense: Northwestern linebacker Colin Ellis. The junior from Gabriel, La., became the first Wildcat in school history to return two interceptions for touchdowns (56, 40 yards) in a win over California. He also had four tackles.
Special teams: Penn State kicker Sam Ficken. The junior from Valparaiso, Ind., made field goals of 36, 35 and 46 yards in a win over Syracuse. He has made 13 field goals in a row.
Freshman: Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Syracuse.
Quotes of the week
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill on how to keep his team focused for New Mexico State, which has lost 16 of its past 18 games: “It should be pretty easy. They beat us here two years ago.”
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien on how to improve his team's rushing attack: “It starts with me. I've got to stop calling bad plays.”
Stat of the week
Hackenberg was just the second true freshman to start at quarterback in a season opener for Penn State since 1910.
Bits and pieces
Ľ Northwestern starting quarterback Kain Colter (concussion) was expected to attend practice Tuesday, but remains day-to-day for Saturday.
Ľ Michigan backup tailback Drake Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first career game Saturday. The redshirt freshman will be replaced by true freshman Derrick Green behind starter Fitz Toussaint.
Ľ Northwestern starting cornerback Daniel Jones is out for the season with torn knee ligaments.
Ľ Minnesota starting tailback Donnell Kirkwood (ankle) is questionable for Saturday's game at New Mexico State.
Ľ Iowa plans to use freshman running back LeShun Daniels this week against Missouri State.
Ľ Illinois and South Florida have scheduled a home-and-home for 2017 and 2018.