Gardner makes smooth transition back to quarterback for emergency start

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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 3, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Devin Gardner didn’t need long to adjust.

Gardner, who transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver full-time as a junior this fall, was the emergency starter under center for the Michigan football team against Minnesota after senior Denard Robinson and redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy were both held out with injuries.

All three quarterbacks practiced this week and shared snaps, but Gardner got the call on Saturday in Minneapolis. Michigan coach Brady Hoke made the decision to sit Robinson on Friday night and informed Gardner at game time.

Gardner, who hadn’t thrown a pass in a game since Nov. 19, 2011 against Nebraska, exploded for 234 yards on 12-of-18 passing and two touchdowns against the Golden Gophers, leading Michigan to a 35-13 victory.

In his first career start at quarterback, Gardner engineered touchdown drives of 91, 90, 86 and 79 yards. And after an early interception, he settled in and looked increasingly comfortable. Despite struggling to read his coverage properly on a few plays, Gardner flashed impressive improvisation and elusiveness that left the Golden Gopher defense looking rather foolish.

Not bad for a receiver-turned-quarterback-turned-receiver.

“It didn’t surprise us, his ability,” Hoke said.

Nor should it have. A former five-star quarterback recruit from Inkster, Mich., Gardner has remained stiffly opposed to the notion that he is wide receiver first, quarterback second. In his mind, he’ll always be a quarterback, despite a frame and skill set typical for a wideout.

“He fashions himself as a quarterback,” Hoke acknowledged on Saturday. “He really has made the move to help us as a football team. It tells you a little bit about him and his character and what he believes about Michigan.”

When Robinson went down with a nerve injury in his right arm in a 23-9 loss to Nebraska last week, Bellomy stepped in and struggled mightily. After the defeat, Hoke said bringing Gardner in at quarterback was never an option. It wouldn’t have been fair to Gardner, who hadn’t taken snaps at quarterback for several weeks.

With Robinson’s availability for Saturday's game shrouded in uncertainty this week, the coaching staff shifted Gardner back to quarterback. He took the lion’s share of reps, spent time with the first team and eased back into his natural position.

“I don’t think it took him very long (to adjust),” Hoke said. “He’s played a lot of quarterback, he’s worked a lot of quarterback. It’s the old riding-the-bike theory, to some degree. I know it’s probably a little more difficult than that, but Devin’s a smart guy.”

The passing game wasn’t difficult to acclimate to, Gardner said, but recognizing new protections and familiarizing himself with the ground game took some time. He called offensive coordinator Al Borges’ gameplan a “safe” one, due to the extreme lack of depth at quarterback.

“They couldn’t run the quarterback,” Gardner said. “I’m comfortable with doing that, but there was no way we could have done that, it just wouldn’t have been smart.”

When Gardner first moonlighted at wide receiver in the spring, Hoke stressed the importance of keeping Gardner, a playmaker with an athletic build and speed, on the field.

Even if Gardner wasn’t going to challenge Robinson for playing time at quarterback, if he was in the offense somewhere, he’d make an impact in some way. And by all accounts, the transition to wide receiver has only helped.

“I think his growth maturity-wise has been really substantial,” Hoke said. “Part of that is playing wideout — how they practice, how Heck (wide receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski) practices those guys — I think you have a mindset and your toughness increases.”

Gardner had a bit of a flashback this week. In practice, when quarterbacks throw a bad ball, the receiver has to run back and run the drill again. It’s not hard for the quarterback, who just drops back and tries again, but it’s a brutal workout for the wideout.

This week, Gardner was back on the quarterback side of that equation. (“It just helps me appreciate what (receivers) do,” he said.) And knowing the roles, difficulties and tendencies of both positions is a significant benefit.

“It definitely does,” Gardner said. “Playing receiver, you know what kind of balls you don’t like.”

On Saturday, he put the passes where the receivers liked them, and it paid off.

The performance was a night-and-day difference from Gardner's other stints at quarterback. In seven appearances last fall, Gardner displayed a lack of poise, awareness and pocket presence, posting an abbreviated stat line that read 11-of-23 passing for 176 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Hoke was quick to note that Gardner has by no means unseated Robinson for the starting quarterback position — that spot won’t be up for grabs.

But Gardner, after erasing a multitude of question marks with a banner day against the Golden Gophers, is firmly the No. 2 quarterback for now. And he has the Michigan fan base peering a little less cautiously into the future at quarterback, the future beyond Robinson.