Walker, Gardner, Avant (L to R)
After yesterday's one-two gut punch of basketball news, let's talk football, shall we? The story that will likely dominate the spring is the potential move of quarterback Devin Gardner to wide receiver, at least part-time. Gardner, in case you didn't see Brian's UV yesterday, showed some pretty serious skills at receiver when camping as a high schooler. He's also 6'5", athletic, blessed with hands large enough to make the catch above, and familiar with the offense. Meanwhile, Michigan's two known quantities at receiver are Roy Roundtree, whose production plummeted last year when QB OH NOES wasn't a regular part of the playbook, and Jeremy Gallon, who looks quite promising but is also listed at 5'8".
Gardner taking some snaps at receiver is a good idea then, right? I certainly think so, but I've heard several arguments to the contrary. Allow me to present them, then do my best to crush them.
Argument 1—Gardner shouldn't play receiver because if he's hurt at wideout and Denard gets inevitably dinged (or hurt himself, God forbid) we're totally screwed.
This is the argument I've seen the most, and the mentality behind it is one I absolutely hate. Yes, I'm aware that Michigan has just three scholarship QBs on the roster. That is the reality for this year and it's not an optimal one. Denard Robinson has been known to get knocked around on occasion, sometimes requiring a backup cameo. He's a running quarterback. Injuries happen.
But it takes a large leap from "Michigan is thin at QB" to "Gardner can't play wideout because injury doomsday scenario." First of all, if Denard gets hurt, that's a doomsday scenario in and of itself. If Gardner is hurt at the same time, well, the football gods hate Michigan. Does the slim chance of this worst-case scenario happening mean Michigan shouldn't play one of their best athletes at a position in dire need of help when he otherwise wouldn't see the field? No.
Simply put, college coaches cannot operate under the assumption that the worst will happen. That's the same line of thinking that made coaches doubt the viability of the forward pass (remember, only three things can happen when you throw, and two of them are bad) and causes the Zooks of the coaching world to punt on 4th-and-3 from the opponent's 38. Brady Hoke has proven that he's got some serious cajones, and that's generally regarded as a fantastic trait in a head coach. This is not how he operates.
Also, redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy may very well be an equally viable backup option as Gardner, or at least at the point where the dropoff between the two backups isn't large enough to justify keeping Gardner on the bench when he could be contributing at wideout. Which brings me to the next argument...
Argument 2—Gardner shouldn't play receiver because it'll take away from his practice reps at quarterback and he won't develop.
This one holds more water than the first argument, but I still don't agree with it. Gardner is already splitting backup reps at QB with Bellomy, and unless you think Gardner needs a ton of "mental reps," I don't think it hurts to have him spending his non-throwing practice time running routes and catching passes.
It's not like Gardner is switching sides of the ball. In fact, playing receiver can help with his quarterback play; running routes can hone timing, understanding of schemes, and keep him sharp and ready to see the field.
This year's NFL draft will provide a great example of a player who went through a very similar mid-career situation. Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill was a three-star dual-threat QB in the 2007 class, redshirting in his first season. As a redshirt freshman, he battled for the starting QB job but ultimately fell behind two other players. At 6'4", 220 pounds, Tannehill was moved to receiver in fall camp by head coach Mike Sherman. All he did was catch 55 passes for 844 yards and five TDs.
The next year, Tannehill again competed to start at quarterback, but lost out to Jerrod Johnson. As the primary backup, A&M could've handed him a headset, but instead they threw him back out there at receiver. Tannehill had 46 receptions for 609 yards and four TDs while also appearing in three games at QB in mop-up duty. As a junior, Tannehill started the season as a receiver but earned the starting nod as a quarterback partway through the year, completing 65% of his passes and throwing 13 TDs to just six interceptions. After a strong senior season as the full-time starter at QB, Tannehill is expected to go in the top 12 in this year's NFL draft. If playing receiver stunted his development as a quarterback, it wasn't enough to merit keeping the team's best receiver off the field.
Argument 3—The dumbest argument ever.
Sorry to put you on blast, Eric Lloyd, but I can't let this just slide on by:
Just no. If I seriously have to argue this point, and I hope I don't for 99.9% of you out there, I'll keep it short. Denard Robinson is about to be a senior in his second year under the current system, coming off an All-Big Ten season that followed up one of the most productive years by a quarterback in the history of college football. Whether or not he's going to be a quarterback at the next level, it's by far the most optimal position to play him at in college.
Devin Gardner has attempted 17 career passes—10 against Bowling Green in a 2010 curb-stomping—and has spent his entire career as a backup quarterback. If he's better at this point in his career than Denard, he hasn't made that apparent to anyone who would have the best idea about whether or not that was the case. End of argument that hopefully never needed to be made.
Michigan can explore the opportunity of sticking a 6'5" playmaker on the field at a position of huge need, or they can keep Devin Gardner on the bench for fear that the worst thing ever will happen. Unless you're the type to keep a fully-stocked bunker in case of the nuclear holocaust, the choice here is rather apparent.