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SportsMonday Column: Gardner is best served as Robinson's sidekick

Marissa McClain/Daily
Michigan quarterbacks Devin Gardner (left) and Denard Robinson were on the field at the same time in one of Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges's more creative packages. Buy this photo

By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 2, 2011

“Devin will probably be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, once he gets to start.”

Denard Robinson’s voice dripped with a confident ease, as he looked the reporter in the eye. He was dead serious.

Had Robinson just watched his roommate, Devin Gardner, play against the same Golden Gophers he just ran circles around himself?

Gardner’s much-anticipated first pass was a lame duck to Jeremy Gallon on a long pass to the sidelines — the same kind of pass the lore of Devin Gardner and his strong arm said he should make.

On his second throw, Michigan bootlegged Gardner out and he found Junior Hemingway in the soft spot of the Minnesota zone for 14 yards.

When Gardner ran, his strides were long and deceivingly fast, compared to Robinson’s quick jabs that help him shake defenders in a phone booth. By the time Gardner came into the game to replace Robinson midway through the third quarter, Robinson’s legs or the threat of him running had created a 45-0 lead. By then, Gardner’s runs must’ve looked like they were in slow motion.

For weeks, fans and the media alike clamored for a glimpse of Gardner. Conventional wisdom agreed: Robinson is unlikely to stay healthy, considering his past bumps and bruises. And Gardner could have potentially offered a better option in the passing game, running Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges’s pro-style attack.

Lightning bolts didn’t strike down defenders as Gardner ran and his passes weren’t laser beams, so his debut wasn’t as advertised.

His delivery wasn’t as clean and as pro-ready as you may remember from the spring game. There were a few crisp throws and a few off-target tosses. He scrambled to buy time, and ran the read-option well with freshman running back Thomas Rawls.

But Devin Gardner wasn’t Denard Robinson.

Gardner quarterbacked three meaningful drives, resulting in two field goals and just Michigan’s second three-and-out of the afternoon.

One day, Robinson may be right that Gardner will be a star in this league. Until then, he too needs to work on his footwork and mechanics. Because Saturday was enough of a sample size to clearly rule out any absurd quarterback controversy. The best thing for Michigan is if Gardner just waits his turn.

Despite the questions about Robinson’s 49-percent completion rate and six interceptions through four games, Borges stayed true to his mantra: We have Denard Robinson at quarterback.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime player.

I won’t be the one who goes down as having squashed Denard Robinson’s potential, he was almost saying.

Would you want to be that guy?

So what if Robinson couldn’t hit open receivers against Eastern Michigan and San Diego State? Borges reasoned that the Wolverines won the game because of Robinson’s legs.

Robinson did it again against Minnesota.

All season, opponents had game-planned to just stop Robinson. Borges finally figured out how best to counter that scheme, and still exploit his once-in-a-lifetime player — as a decoy.

Want to stack the box and play the run? Borges planned to get Robinson going in the passing game with easier designed plays and easier throws. On Saturday, Robinson completed his first 11 passes and his mechanics looked sound against the lowly Golden Gophers.

Want to shade defenders to Robinson’s side of the read-option? Robinson will hand the ball off to a running back who’ll gladly run through that giant hole on the opposite side. Fitz Toussaint exploded for 108 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries.

Want to (almost literally) have your entire defense watching Robinson’s every move? Borges is going to run misdirection and trick plays, getting the defense to follow Robinson one way and have the play flow the other. That was the new theme of the offense.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke explained it like this: “When you have a quarterback that threatens people because of his ability to run, that’s part of it. That stuff is like the old counter play, which you don’t see a whole lot of people running anymore. It’s a lot of traction one way and then going back the other way.”

That’s how you end up with 363 yards rushing and 7.6 yards per carry as a team.

For now, Gardner’s role is perfect as Robinson’s sidekick. Borges installed a trick package that Vincent Smith said they called “Two.” Lined up in a diamond formation, Gardner under center, and Robinson and two running backs behind him.

Imagine the possibilities with two quarterbacks who can run and throw the ball on the field at once. It’ll certainly be fun to watch. But it’s only possible because of Denard Robinson. The threat of him running the ball makes that diamond package that much scarier.

Borges called the set four times — two of which were fakes to Robinson going one way. Gardner ran one for a first down and Toussaint had a 15-yard gain the other.

Examining Robinson’s numbers — 169 yards passing, 51 yards rushing, three total touchdowns — they’re not that impressive on paper. But his fingerprints were all over this win. And that’s how it should be for his remaining time at Michigan.

Look around the Big Ten. Quarterbacks, just as much as brute strength, rule this conference. Later on Saturday, the veteran Russell Wilson severely outplayed the raw Taylor Martinez and Wisconsin pummeled Nebraska, 48-17. Ohio State, Penn State, Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota all have questions at the position. All could finish as the bottom five teams in the Big Ten because of it. And Martinez could be the only thing holding the Cornhuskers back.

If Michigan wants to keep its train rolling, it’ll have to rely on Robinson not playing poorly again in Big Ten play. Gardner’s not going to save them.

Whether Robinson’s passing continues to improve remains to be seen. But Hoke and Borges have one hell of a weapon to use against the rest of the Big Ten.

May the best quarterback win.

—Rohan can be reached at trohan@umich.edu or on Twitter: @TimRohan.