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SportsMonday Column: Devin Gardner, receiver transplant, holds onto QB dreams

Todd Needle/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 9, 2012

It’s all been stripped away from him.

Two years ago, Devin Gardner was the future of the Michigan football program, a five-star quarterback from Inkster, Mich. with a rocket arm and 4.57 speed to burn.

He had the charisma to be Michigan’s poster boy at quarterback — the alpha position in America’s alpha sport — and a smile to rival that of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson.

Scout.com analyst Berry Every labeled Gardner’s talent as “almost limitless” as a high school senior in 2009.

“He could be a major terror for defensive coordinators at the next level,” Every said at the time. “Gardner should be a two- to three-year starter with all-conference and NFL potential.”

But Gardner’s tenure on campus hasn’t exactly gone according to plan.

His redshirt was burned — maybe permanently. He hasn’t by any indication challenged for the starting quarterback spot, struggling in occasional appearances as Robinson’s replacement. He fell to third on the quarterback depth chart this season, behind an unheralded Russell Bellomy.

And now he’s not even the only “Devin.”

Sitting alongside freshman tight end standout Devin Funchess in a press conference Saturday, Gardner was repeatedly referred to as “Old Devin,” which brought a smirk to his face. (“Funchess — his name isn’t Devin, it’s Funchess!” Gardner said.)

Then, to either his chagrin or assent — no one can really tell — his role at Michigan changed in a way he had never imagined.

Today, Gardner is a wide receiver. To everyone not named Devin Gardner, that is.

“I definitely still think of myself as a quarterback,” Gardner said Saturday, looking almost insulted at the question. “I just happen to be able to play wide receiver to help the team.”

That’s the same thing he said last Monday.

“I’m definitely a quarterback, so that’s without a doubt.”

But he’s the only one saying it.

“I would say he’s a wide receiver first, and then a quarterback depending on where you're at in the game or the week,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said last Monday.

Gardner has hauled in six passes and two touchdowns in two games at receiver this season — two touchdowns more than anyone else in the receiving corps. The 6-foot-4, 203-pounder has quickly become Robinson’s favorite target. He’s been thrown to more than anyone, even experienced wideouts such as Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon.

He looks like a receiver — and a potentially great one at that.

But Gardner doesn’t view his two positions as 1A and 1B. He’s been strangely clear that there is a hierarchy: He is a quarterback first, a receiver out of necessity.

His insistency has been almost unnerving. You’d expect a talented athlete to tout his multi-faceted skills equally. But Gardner has almost pooh-poohed his receiver prowess, saying again and again he fully intends to be a quarterback.

Saturday, he was faced with the question of whether he could foresee coming to a point where instead of moonlighting at receiver, he would go full-bore at receiver to see guaranteed playing time or take a shot at the NFL.

Gardner paused, shifting his gaze across the room before answering.

“I feel like every kid has a dream,” Gardner began. “My dream is to play quarterback at the University of Michigan and go onto the next level to play quarterback. If that opportunity presents itself, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”

In 11 months, we’ll be discussing a true quarterback battle at Michigan, something we haven’t seen since Denard Robinson vs. Tate Forcier two years ago, when Robinson earned the job and exploded onto the national scene.

But who’s going to be part of this one? Gardner will be in the discussion, at least at first, as will sophomore Russell Bellomy and five-star quarterback recruit Shane Morris.

It’s hard to predict. At one point last season, Robinson said Gardner “will probably be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, once he gets to start.” But will Gardner ever get that chance to start a game as quarterback at Michigan, or will his dream be dashed and a future at wide receiver realized?

I must not have a green thumb, because I can’t figure this Gardner thing out.

— Nesbitt can be reached at stnesbit@umich.edu or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.