- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 19, 2013
In between workouts and practice, redshirt junior Devin Gardner studies professional quarterbacks. He sends periodic text messages to Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges about reads. He watches film on each practice. Twice. Yet the new face of Michigan football says there is one big difference from last year: he’s not so tired anymore.
And why not? Gone, finally, is the positional confusion — is he a quarterback? Receiver? Both? In 2012, as Michigan coach Brady Hoke put it, Gardner “was torn between being a wide receiver and a quarterback.”
Now, Gardner enters spring practices as the presumptive starter at quarterback. And so, after a year of Gardner being inside his own head, he’s finally where he’s most comfortable: inside others’ heads.
“He’s really good at getting in people’s heads,” said Gardner’s teammate, fifth-year senior Taylor Lewan. “If you get called out by a quarterback, your starting quarterback right now, that’s kind of a kick in the ass.”
Hoke says that on the field, Gardner is more confident in the pocket, that he sees the field more quickly. But Gardner’s biggest change this offseason might be his maturity. Gardner says he watches film on NFL quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick to improve his play, but he also studies Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning to learn how to be a better leader.
Gardner has emerged with his sense of humor intact, but now, it has a purpose. When Gardner sees a player make a mistake, he says he’ll pull him aside to correct so he doesn’t embarrass the player. But Gardner is also quick with a taunt — anything to motivate.
“He’s a professional trash talker,” said fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon. “He knows how to get to your nerves and he knows what gets you mad.
“You always got to be on your p’s and q’s.”
Gordon, for example, often gets text messages from Gardner, who taunts the 5-foot-11 safety for his height. On Tuesday, Gardner took a photo with Gordon and afterward, reminded him that “he’s really, really short,” Gardner said. In practice, Gardner threw jump balls to 6-foot-5 sophomore tight end Devin Funchess, challenging Gordon to stop it.
Gordon said that Gardner “can pick you apart,” but his teammates say they have responded both to Gardner’s talent as well as his prodding.
“He’s done a great job of using his personality and his humor to lead this team and do different things,” Lewan said.
CHAMPIONS OF THE… EAST?: Michigan will always declare itself the champion of the West, but according to a report from ESPN.com, that soon might be an anachronism.
Adam Rittenberg reported Tuesday that the Big Ten plans to realign its divisions according to geography, with Michigan joining rivals Ohio State and Michigan State in the East. The changes will take effect in 2014, when Maryland and Rutgers join the conference.
According to the report, “barring a late shift in the discussions between athletic directors and league officials,” the eastern division will comprise Michigan, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. Officials have yet to assign Purdue and Indiana to a conference.
There has been no word on the fate of the oft-ridiculed current division names, “Legends” and “Leaders.” The distinctly polarizing names highlighted an initial divisional alignment that eschewed a traditional geographical split seen in most other conferences in favor of competitive balance.
In the new format, the east dominates the west in both historical and present-day terms. Schools in the East, which include soon-to-be newcomers Rutgers and Maryland, have combined for 84 Big Ten championships (including shared titles). Western schools claim just 66.
Last year, Eastern teams went a combined 44-27, compared to a record of 40-38 for the West. The Western division — which comprises Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin — does own the past three Big Ten titles, all of which belong to the Badgers.
The realignment means Michigan and Ohio State will meet just once, barring a meeting in the future national playoff. Under the current alignment, which has Michigan and Ohio State in separate divisions, the schools could theoretically meet in the Big Ten Championship game for the second consecutive week after playing the traditional rivalry game in the last week of the regular season.
IF THE BRACE FITZ: Tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint took part in limited drills during practice Tuesday, which was the first full-pads practice of the spring. The fifth-year wore a brace on his leg and was in full gear, but he didn’t participate in contract drills.
Toussaint suffered a gruesome injury to his left leg Nov. 17 against Iowa. Since then, Toussaint’s recovery has progressed faster than expected.
Hoke said that running backs coach Fred Jackson “has different drills, cutting drills and those kinds of things” for Toussaint. He added: “We’re just not going to be putting him out there in live action yet.”
NOTES: Hoke said the team hasn’t yet applied for a medical redshirt for junior cornerback Blake Countess, but it plans to. Countess suffered an ACL tear during the first quarter of last season’s opening game against Alabama. … Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said he has taken out an insurance policy on himself, which will compensate him in the event of an injury. Lewan was regarded as a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he opted to stay for his final season at Michigan.