- Chantel Jennings, ESPN Staff Writer
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Nine Big Ten programs will feature true quarterback competitions this spring, and we're taking a closer look at the candidates, the circumstances and the stakes of each race. Up next: Michigan.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There’s a new offensive coordinator and scheme this spring for the Michigan offense.
The big question remains: Will the Wolverines have a new starting quarterback?
Gardner, who injured his toe during the Ohio State-Michigan game in November, rehabbed quickly and practiced on Tuesday for the first day of spring practice. Michigan coach Brady Hoke was surprised to see how soon Gardner got back but said he “looked great."
Gardner, up a healthy 13 pounds from the end of the 2013 season, is excited to be back and compete.
And then there’s the young gun Morris, who, in his lone start of the season, showed plenty of poise -- something that Gardner certainly lacked at points last season. Morris stepped in for Gardner in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and had a solid showing. For new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, however, the 24 completions and 196 passing yards weren't the most impressive thing about Morris' performance.
“The thing you’re looking for, in my opinion, when you play a young player in a game like that is: is the game too big? Is the moment too big?” Nussmeier said. “And it wasn’t for him. He performed.”
It was the kind of performance many expected out of Morris. The highly publicized recruit was the player whom many fans called for when Gardner suffered tough stretches during 2013.
Through the first four games of the season Gardner accounted for eight interceptions -- the most of any FBS quarterback at that point -- as well as two fumbles. During that same stretch Michigan almost lost to Akron and Connecticut.
But during another four-game stretch -- the final four games of the regular season -- it was a completely different story. Gardner threw for 971 yards and eight touchdowns while not throwing a single interception. With the Michigan offensive line finally showing some chemistry, Gardner displayed that he could be a reliable QB.
Obviously last season’s performances are only a portion of the equation for next season's starting QB spot, but they can’t completely be overlooked because experience is so crucial when asking a QB to step in and lead an offense. Gardner will have the advantage when it comes to experience, but Morris is likely still confident after coming off such a good showing in Arizona.
In the past, Hoke has seemed to be loyal to his upperclassmen in certain position battles. But with a new coordinator coming in, Morris and Gardner begin on the same level and those relationships that most coaches have with their oldest players vs. their younger players just don’t exist.
Nussmeier said that he did watch more game film than practice film from last season so he has certainly seen more of Gardner than Morris, but now with spring practices started, he’s getting to see them in person.
Michigan won’t go full contact until after the Wolverines return from spring break on March 11. But even without going full contact, the evaluation process has begun. Nussmeier is able to see how quickly both Gardner and Morris have picked up the offense and verbiage, how they lead their teammates, their touch on passes and more.
“We’re going to evaluate it just like every other position on our offense,” Nussmeier said. “We’re going to create competition. We want guys to go out and compete. … It’s a new system for everybody.”
It’s hard to say how much of this quarterback controversy is completely true, however. The Wolverines start next season with two highly visible and highly anticipated games with Appalachian State (which beat Michigan in the season opener in 2007) and Notre Dame (the final schedule matchup between the two rivals).
Those are the kinds of games that most would want to see a veteran quarterback start in because those are the kinds of games where emotions could trump play. Gardner has been in those situations and helped to control his team’s emotions. And while Morris was certainly on a big stage in the bowl game, he wasn’t asked to throw many passes down the field. Most of his passing yardage was picked up by receivers after the catch.
At this point, with the ability Gardner has displayed in picking up new offenses and aspects of offenses -- moving from Rich Rodriguez’s spread to Al Borges’ quasi-spread, as well as a position move from quarterback to wide receiver and then back to quarterback -- the starting position seems to be Gardner’s to lose.
Now, Morris could have a breakout spring and make enough strides to really push Gardner for the job, but at this point as long as Gardner can compete fully in the live sessions after spring break he’ll likely be the starter when the Wolverines spring game rolls around on April 5.
And he thinks so, too.
“I feel like I’m the leader,” Gardner said. “I’m a competitor, so I’m going to compete. ... I’m the quarterback of this team.”