It rarely comes easy when you make your first career start at quarterback, as junior Devin Gardner did last Saturday against Minnesota.
But it’s certainly easier when your receivers help you out. That was the case for Gardner — his 234 passing yards were the most the Michigan football team has put up all season long, meaning it was also obviously the most yards the Wolverine pass-catchers have tallied all year.
The receiver unit lacks the kind of star power that Michigan has enjoyed in the past. It also doesn’t have the type of downfield threat that can bail out the quarterback on a desperation heave, like Junior Hemingway did on many occasions last season.
But against the Gophers, the receivers came through with several tough catches, extending key drives and helping Gardner play as good of a game as he realistically could have had, considering he hadn’t taken significant reps at quarterback in several weeks before last week.
The signal-caller-turned-receiver-turned-signal-caller was certainly appreciative of his former position group-mates.
“They came up really big,” Gardner said. “They’ve made plays all season. It’s been in spurts, but they’ve made plays. They just had more opportunities this week. I just felt like they came up big and did what they’re supposed to do.”
Gardner didn’t have an unusually high number of pass attempts — his 18 were less than the number that normal starter Denard Robinson has had in five of his eight games — but the receivers had more chances in that the Wolverines seemingly threw the ball downfield more with Gardner under center.
The offense Michigan deployed in Minneapolis was markedly different than what the team has run with Robinson — there was less shotgun, less read option plays and more traditional pass sets.
Though Michigan coach Brady Hoke insisted that the system doesn’t change much with one or the other at quarterback, the play calling, at least, seemed to differ. The change in play calling is also partly due to the current lack of depth at quarterback, with offensive coordinator Al Borges calling fewer quarterback runs to make sure Gardner doesn’t join his position-mates on the injury list.
For the receivers, that change meant opportunities for downfield plays. Three of them — junior Drew Dileo, fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree and redshirt junior Jeremy Gallon — had more than 60 receiving yards, marking the first time this season that the Wolverines have had a trio with even 40 yards apiece in a game.
“He threw the ball up and we had to make plays,” said Roundtree, whose 64 receiving yards were his most since Oct. 15 last season against Michigan State. “Coach Heck (receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski) told us we was gonna have to make plays this game and help Devin out, and I feel like all the wide receivers did that.”
Most importantly, perhaps, the performance was markedly better than the week before against Nebraska, when the receiving corps welcomed redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy into his most significant game action by dropping several passes.
Borges said he wasn’t surprised by the bounce-back performance on the part of the receivers. But it was notable in at least one regard — the group often didn’t know where it should go, given that Gardner spent much of the game scrambling around.
The unit is certainly used to that, with the running threat that Robinson has posed in the backfield for the last three seasons. But Gardner took the scrambling to another level in how long he spent before deciding whether to take off for a find a receiver.
It worked out well most of the time — no better than on Dileo’s 45-yard touchdown, when Gardner ran around almost the entire width of the field and finally released the ball after nearly 10 seconds. But Roundtree admitted with a smile that it isn’t easy knowing whether he should keep getting open, or if he should start blocking for a quarterback takeoff.
“You hope that they look up the field and see that someone is open,” Roundtree said. “Once they duck their head, you know they gonna run, they’re really not looking up. You just have to go find a block.
“With the quarterbacks we have, you have to stay on the move until they’re past the line of scrimmage. That’s for sure.”
Gardner knows all about that, having spent the first eight weeks of the season working almost exclusively at wide receiver.
Hoke and Borges said that his time moonlighting as a receiver has made him a better quarterback, and Gardner agreed, at least in one regard.
“Receivers, believe it or not, they like when balls are in certain places,” Gardner said. “Some catches are tougher than others and you have to make those catches, but if there’s any way you can stop from them having to make those tough catches and make routine plays, that’s the best thing for them and they really like that. That’s one thing I’ve learned.”
Should Gardner continue to progress as a passer, the tougher balls may be fewer and farther in between. But if not, he also learned his receivers — though perhaps not the most talented bunch — will be there for him.
NOTES: Hoke said that Robinson and Bellomy are “day-to-day,” and that said he wouldn’t update their condition beyond that “in fairness to those kids.”
The coach also said that freshman defensive end Mario Ojemudia, who injured his ankle against Nebraska, is progressing, but Hoke didn’t indicate whether he expects Ojemudia to play against Northwestern. Hoke did say, though, that Gallon — who was wearing a walking boot after the Minnesota game — should be “good” to play.