On the first play of the Michigan football team’s Spring Game on Saturday, redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner let one fly toward the right sidelines, showing off the arm strength that wowed scouts before his arrival in Ann Arbor three years ago.
Freshman wide receiver Amara Darboh made the over-the-shoulder catch for a gain of 29 yards. After the scrimmage, Gardner brought up the play and smiled, saying that he liked to throw the ball deep.
One play, insignificant in the context of the season, but in April, a big indicator of how this team and this offense is going to run.
Last year, Gardner’s role on this team was a little more muddled. He played in the Spring Game as a quarterback but switched to wide receiver in the summer, only to be thrust into the starting quarterback role after then-senior Denard Robinson suffered an elbow injury on Oct. 27.
He did well, but it wasn’t his team. Robinson, the star quarterback and the face of the program, was still in the picture even with the injury.
Now, there’s no more Robinson, and nobody else above Gardner on the depth chart — it’s his squad, his offense and his position.
Stats aren’t kept for the spring game, but unofficially, Gardner finished 11 for 16 for 145 years and one touchdown.
“It’s his throne now,” said fifth-year senior safety Thomas Gordon. “That will definitely make him feel better back there. I could see it in his play in the spring, he’s a lot more comfortable back there and has taken control of the offense. It’s really exciting.”
Behind him is a cast of relative unknowns. The presumed backup, redshirt sophomore Russell Bellomy, tore his anterior cruciate ligament last month, and highly touted incoming freshman Shane Morris hasn’t arrived in Ann Arbor yet.
So at the Spring Game, that left redshirt freshman Brian Cleary and redshirt junior Alex Swieca as the two Wolverines behind Gardner. Both have never seen a minute of game action, and Swieca is a walk-on that didn’t play high-school football (he did, however, play a year in the Israeli Football League before coming to Ann Arbor).
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said after the game that Cleary has settled into the backup role behind Gardner but also didn’t diminish the play of Swieca.
“It was good to give them snaps with people here, with people in this stadium and playing in this stadium,” Hoke said. “I think both of them handled themselves well.”
On Saturday, Cleary looked the part of the backup. He played fine, not wowing anyone with his passes but also not looking completely unprepared. The redshirt freshman completed two of his nine passes for 24 yards and one touchdown. His biggest play of the game might have come on a run, when he scrambled away from the rush for a 21-yard gain.
Swieca also had a couple of good throws — finishing 4-of-7 for 36 yards — but at times looked a little rattled against the Michigan rush, understandable for someone who gets significantly less snaps in practice than Gardner.
It might be one of the only times in his career that Swieca sees the field at Michigan Stadium, or it might be a good primer if he somehow vaults into the backup role.
But for the defensive players who don’t often see the offensive backups, it was a good experience just to see someone like Swieca — whose skill is an unproven commodity — get a chance.
“Everyone is involved, everyone is playing, so you get to see a lot of guys’ skills that maybe you don’t see as much in the fall,” said junior linebacker Desmond Morgan. “It’s cool to see everyone out there playing and seeing what everyone really has.”
Still, on Saturday, it was clear who was the alpha quarterback.
Both Cleary and Swieca were hit to the ground on a couple of plays, even though they were wearing orange jerseys that signified contact was to be avoided.
Gardner, the other Wolverine quarterback wearing orange, wasn’t touched.