Can a conservative gameplan designed to protect Gardner's health still utilize Gardner's running ability as a threat to influence defenses?
This question came up, most recently, in today's Hokepoints thread. MCalibur argued for a much more intense use of Gardner as a runner, and was universally shot down by people like me who believe that a significant Gardner injury basically ends Michigan's season.
But can he force teams to account for him in the running game anyway?
Grantland has an interesting piece from Chris Brown of Smart Football that seeks to discern what kind of offense Chip Kelly will run in Philadelphia this year. One of the interesting revelations is that Chip can run his basic scheme with or without a running quarterback without changing its basic tenets. And, further, that Chip strongly preferred that his QBs in Oregon hand off, regardless of the actions of the unblocked defender.
And the statistics bear this out. Oregon's two most successful years occurred under the guidance of perhaps the least impressive, and certainly the slowest, quarterback of the Chip Kelly era: Darron Thomas. Thomas wasn't exactly Tom Brady in the pocket, but he wasn't a gamebreaker either, and those of us who watched Oregon in those years remember how infrequently he made plays with his feet.
Oregon won the Rose Bowl at the conclusion of its 2011 season; I don't think any of us would be disappointed with that kind of result this year. Darron Thomas that year? 56 carries, 206 yards, 3 touchdowns.
Yet Oregon was not lining up in the I-formation. They were running their diet of inside and outside zone reads, inside zone gives, and occasional reverses. Thomas wasn't a huge threat, but his presence required the coverage, or at least hesitation, of the unblocked defender; the result was space for LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner to run through.
Michigan does not run the spread concept anymore, and we do not have LaMichael James in our backfield, but the principle is the same. If the rumors of a pistol look are true, I would be unsurprised (but overjoyed) to see Michigan running pistol read-option looks to its tailbacks where Gardner almost always gives. This uses Gardner's speed as a threat while still keeping his running totals low. Frankly, as Kelly does, the only time Gardner would ever pull would be when the defense completely ignores him--and then he has the space to make them pay, and to protect himself. Two or three of those carries a game and the concept has done its job.
Combine those carries with perhaps one or two designed draws and Gardner's propensity for scrambling and you have 8-10 low-risk carries per game but also a fully realized threat that the defense must account for on every play.