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Thursday, April 4, 2013
Devin Gardner gains mental edge

By Adam Rittenberg

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner compiled his goals card for spring practice, he wrote down two words: no limitations.

After a winter to prepare as the Wolverines' starter, Gardner wanted offensive coordinator Al Borges to operate without restrictions. Whatever Borges intended to throw his way, Gardner would be ready.

"Coach Borges can call anything he wants, from any formation, set or anything," Gardner told ESPN.com. "I talked to him about it, and he said he's very comfortable with me, calling anything at any time."

Devin Gardner
Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said he wants to limit the rushing attempts of QB Devin Gardner in 2013.
Gardner always has had a good grasp on Michigan's playbook, and even though he played wide receiver for the first eight games last season, he continued to think like a quarterback. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior always knew he'd return to the signal-caller spot this spring, but an elbow injury to starter Denard Robinson forced Gardner into action.

He exceeded most expectations in Michigan's final five games, accounting for multiple touchdowns in all five contests and at least three scores in four. But not surprisingly, there were some limitations to his game, like with audibles at the line.

"I definitely understood when I needed to get out of a play, but I didn't ever really change plays to a better play last year," he said.

Gardner now has the luxury of advantage audibles, as Borges calls them, which are based more on wants than needs.

"If I see they're in a defense where the play we have called, it'll be fine, but there's a much better play that will give us a better play, he's let me do that," Gardner said.

No limitations?

"Any play in the playbook," he said.

It took some time this spring for Gardner to get comfortable with his new freedom/responsibility, but he said every check he has made at the line has turned into a "plus play" for the offense. Borges is willing to loosen the reins for his top quarterback as long as there's "good rationale" for making changes.

But don't expect Gardner to operate like Peyton Manning does this season.

"We don't want him calling the whole game," Borges said, "but there are instances where there are things he can take advantage of. There are situations where I don't call the right play, and he's got to get us out of that."

Gardner devoted three weeks of the offseason exclusively to studying defensive fronts. The junior felt he had a good grasp on identifying pass coverages, but seeing where pressure would come from required more work.

It has helped him with his audibles during scrimmages this spring.

"Devin is really smart with numbers," Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "He understands the concepts of football, the concepts of our schemes. The zone power, the downhill run stuff, the zone-power combos, the isos, Cover 1, Cover 2, and how to change the play to put us in the best situation to be successful."

According to Gardner, the offense Michigan ran at the end of the 2012 season has remained practically the same. The spread isn't totally dead -- "We're almost no spread offense now, with a few spread principles," Borges said -- but the Wolverines will primarily operate from a pro-set. Gardner said he's taking 70 percent of snaps from under center, and Borges doesn't want Gardner carrying the ball more than 10 times a game.

It doesn't mean Michigan won't use Gardner's athleticism. Borges has studied what NFL teams like the Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson), the San Francisco 49ers (Colin Kaepernick) and the Washington Redskins (Robert Griffin III) are doing with dual-threat quarterbacks like Gardner.

"Any pieces that look like they might fit with what we do," Borges said. "College football isn't pro football. It's different, but you can implement a lot of the same things they do because they do so many things well."

Could Gardner be one of the next dual threats to reach the NFL? Like his goals card, Gardner's potential seems to have no limitations.

"The kid has really worked hard," Borges said. "The game's important to him, and now he gets an opportunity he's been waiting for."