As a fifth-year senior, this is Devin Gardner’s last chance to become the impact quarterback Michigan always expected him to be.
Thanks to the system brought in by new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier — a noted quarterback guru — Gardner should have a much better opportunity than he did in an Al Borges system that seemed determined to turn Gardner into Denard Robinson.
Nussmeier certainly has the resume to help a player like Gardner. They’re both passers who can run.
Nussmeier’s one of only five NCAA quarterbacks to throw for 10,000 career yards and rush for 1,000 — Daunte Culpepper, Colin Kaepernick and Steve McNair are the others — and went on to a five-year career as a backup with the Saints and Colts.
As an assistant in both college and the pros, Nussmeier has worked with quarterbacks like Marc Bulger, Jeff Smoker, Drew Stanton and Jake Locker. Most recently, Nussmeier won a national title as Alabama’s offensive coordinator with A.J. McCarron at quarterback.
"This is a guy who played in the NFL and has years of experience developing great quarterbacks," Gardner said of Nussmeier. "When someone like that tells you that you’ve got the potential to be a first-round pick, you are going to pay attention."
Unlike Robinson, whose first instinct always was to run, Gardner has been most effective as a mobile passer. At times, he’s picked up big yardage on the ground, but almost always in a situation where he scrambled or kept the ball on a rollout when his receivers were covered.
Borges tried to use him like he used Robinson, but Gardner didn’t have the speed or the instincts. His running comes from improvisation, not planned plays.
Nussmeier plans to let Michigan’s running backs handle the running game, and he’s more than happy for Gardner to play the role he likes.
Now that he’s not expected to be a sprinter, Gardner put on 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.
"We’re going to get back to be a power-running team, in the best traditions of the University of Michigan," Nussmeier said. "But you have to play to the strength of your players. You always want your offense to give your players the best chance of success."
Gardner is excited to be in an offense that gives the quarterback more control than he’s had in the past. He might not turn into Peyton Manning — seemingly changing every play a half-dozen times, with an endless stream of gestures, twitches and code words — but Gardner will have some of that available to him.
"There’s a lot more responsibility on my shoulders in this system because I’ve got the opportunity to call an audible at the line of scrimmage and make sure we are in the right play," he said. "That’s something I love."
Nussmeier has praised Gardner’s football IQ and thinks he’ll be a good fit for the system, but both men know there are other factors at work. For Nussmeier’s plans to work, he has to find a way to run the ball — something that eluded Borges for years.
That means putting together an offensive line out of the scattered pieces of last year’s disaster — the only two steady performers, Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, are both in the NFL — and finding a running back who makes plays.
That could be Drake Johnson, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, but has surprised the coaches in fall camp. Or it could be Derrick Green, the highly-touted recruit who was a disappointment last season but has promised a better attitude and finally gotten into shape. Or it might be De’Veon Green, the least flashy of the three but the one who has performed the best as a college running back.
Gardner will also have to find a favorite receiver because record-setting Jeremy Gallon has moved on to the pros, although Devin Funchess is a pretty good place to start.
If it all falls into place, Gardner and the Wolverines could make an impact and be much better than they were a year ago.