How to juggle QB, WR

Gardner not first to split time at skill position under coordinator Borges

Updated: August 23, 2012, 9:41 AM ET
By Michael Rothstein | WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- He still remembers the soreness enveloping his body on a daily basis for the first 18 months after he made the transition. Drew Bennett thought he was in shape, thought he understood what he was doing when he moved from quarterback to wide receiver and back during his career at UCLA.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioDevin Gardner's athleticism has offensive coordinator Al Borges trying to find ways to get him on the field with Denard Robinson.
Only now, a decade after he bounced between the positions for his former offensive coordinator, Al Borges, did the former NFL wide receiver realize how much his body endured. More than most in football, Bennett understands what Michigan junior quarterback/receiver Devin Gardner is going through this preseason.

He did almost the exact same thing, and he said the running was the worst part.

"I know it sounds stupid because you condition all offseason doing the same things as all the receivers," Bennett said. "But when you actually get out there, and especially in the NFL, when we had four or five weeks of double-days, the amount of pounding on your knees and lower back, even though I was in shape, there was nothing like it.

"It took me about 18 months to get comfortable where I could go out. It took me halfway through the next season that I felt my legs got strong enough where I could handle the wear and tear."

Both Bennett and Gardner's roads to receiver are similar. Both were quarterbacks stuck behind entrenched starters who would go on to set school records. Bennett won the starter's job when Cade McNown left UCLA, but lost it to Cory Paus midway through his junior season in 1999. It led to a meeting between Bennett and Borges about moving to wide receiver.

Bennett's senior season, he spent almost all preseason camp at his new position. Then Paus was injured on the first play of the 2000 season against, coincidentally, Alabama, and Bennett again was forced to balance quarterback and receiver.

So Bennett understands what Gardner is up against.

"He has half the practice time and half the film time, and granted, there is an advantage to being a quarterback, you know where the receiver is supposed to be," he said. "But it's another thing to implement that standing there with a guy in your face trying to push you off the line of scrimmage. So it's difficult."

The idea for moving Bennett had always been there -- Bennett played receiver minimally during McNown's career -- and Borges even traveled from UCLA to Ann Arbor, Mich., to see how the Wolverines were balancing their own two-position player: wide receiver/defensive back/future Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.

It is a tough balancing act, though. Coaches want to make sure the player -- in this case, Gardner -- is prepared to play quarterback and wide receiver without destroying him physically or overloading him mentally.

At UCLA, Borges had Bennett throwing scout team reps against air and going through handoff motions. Then, during 7-on-7s and team periods, Bennett would line up with the wide receivers. Borges also shrunk the amount of plays he gave Bennett in a week so if he had to go back under center, he would be comfortable with what he had.

At Michigan, no one will say exactly how Gardner's practices have been structured.

"That's a challenge," Borges said. "We're going to see how it shakes out."

Bennett and Gardner have company juggling quarterback and receiver.

Northwestern starting quarterback Kain Colter began his career as an all-purpose player, lining up at quarterback and wide receiver his first two seasons in relief of or in place of then-starter Dan Persa, who struggled with injuries.

He saw it as his only way on the field with Persa still in purple.

At first, his route-running was raw and he needed to learn how to bump and deal with contact on the line of scrimmage. The extra running was brutal and forced him -- like Bennett -- to do extra conditioning to stay in shape.

Then there was selling actually being a receiver -- something Gardner will inevitably have to learn because of how Michigan uses receivers.

"You have to be able to be a receiver and block on some plays," Colter said. "Just because if I'm a receiver, they know it's a pass all the time. So you have to be able to do it both ways and when I'm a quarterback, they have to be able to think I can pass it or run it.

"You have to be able to do all things, not be predictable. If you do that, it'll definitely keep the defense on their toes and work to an offense's advantage."

Scheme is another factor. Here, Gardner may have an advantage with his learning curve. He is familiar with Borges' hybrid system bouncing between the spread and pro style.

That and Borges has done this before. Those who made the switch said Borges' tutelage made the mental part easier.

"Being able to learn under that system and understand how everything works from a quarterback standpoint, it actually made me a better receiver," said Kodi Burns, who played quarterback for Borges at Auburn before being moved to wide receiver later in his career by Gene Chizik's staff. "Real detailed, fundamental things he teaches. A lot of Bill Walsh-type things.

"... Details in everything, understanding the quarterback's drops and Coach Borges' offense, there are different drops and understanding the timing of routes as far as the receivers."

How much Gardner learned last season backing up Denard Robinson might end up being the key to how much he sees the field this fall as a receiver.

That and if he isn't too sore.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter