Since 2003 only two quarterbacks have been worth two full touchdowns, 14 points, above average* over the course of the entire season. Colt Brennan’s 2006 season at Hawaii was the first and Tim Tebow became the first major conference player to do it in his Heisman Trophy 2007 season at Florida (Michigan did their part to stop him, holding him to a season low +5.9 in Lloyd Carr’s final game).
*adjusted for strength of opponent’s throughout the entire study
Last year in five starts Devin Gardner’s PAN was, you guessed it, over 14 points. Gardner started out on fire, averaging +17.2 in his first three starts at quarterback against Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa. Against Ohio State and South Carolina, he was still in double digits, but his final average ended at +14.7 for the season. Could this be the prelude to a world class 2013 season for Gardner or just a hot hand off of the bench?
The Other Hot Hands
To look into this possibility I looked for every quarterback since 2003 who has produced a five game streak (1AA games excluded) of at least +14 like Devin Gardner did last year. I wanted to understand how common a five game run at this level was and if there was any parallel between a great five game stretch and overall great quarterbacking.
In addition to Gardner, 28 other quarterbacks have accomplished the feat. The others on the list are a virtual Who’s Who of the last decade of college quarterbacks. Three players did it who are still in the NCAA. Johhny Manziel, Marcus Mariota and Tajh Boyd managed the task and are mainstays on preseason All-American lists. Of the 25 other players who have done it and have moved on with their careers, 13 have started an NFL game and 10 are projected starters for the 2013 season. I can’t think of any other college stat that could predict NFL starter status at an over 50% rate. The group of players who have done what Devin Gardner did last season includes the following NFL starters:
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay (Cal, 2003)
Alex Smith, Kansas City (Utah, 2004)
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh (Miami (NTM), 2003)
Cam Newton, Carolina (Auburn, 2010)
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco (Nevada, 2010)
Matthew Stafford, Detroit (Georgia, 2008)
Philip Rivers, San Diego (NC St, 2003)
Robert Griffin, Washington (Baylor, 2011)
Russell Wilson, Seattle (Wisconsin, 2011)
Sam Bradford, St Louis (Oklahoma, 2008)
Denard Robinson, Andrew Luck, Christian Ponder and Mark Sanchez all just missed the cutoff with 5 game runs averaging +13.
Add to them first round selections and former starters Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow and Brady Quinn and you have an over 50% likelihood of becoming an NFL starter based purely on your best five game stretch.
Of the remaining twelve cases, only four came from a Big 5 conference school. Graham Harrell did it in 2008 for Mike Leach at Texas Tech, Nick Florence did it last year for Baylor, Zac Robinson did it in 2007 at Oklahoma State and former Michigan quarterback Ryan Mallett did it in 2009 at Arkansas.
Every player is going to have ups and downs but based on where the other players have gone that have accomplished 5 game streaks on par with Devin Gardner’s five game run as a starter, this is not a fluky performance accomplished by many. Those that have done it at major programs have a high likelihood of an NFL future.
How Good Will Devin Gardner be This Year
I honestly have no clue. I do feel confident that he should be pretty darn good. Quarterbacks who have had a streak of +14 have maintained very high performance even after such a streak so regression to the mean is still a highly positive outcome in most of these situations.
The hardest thing to get a grasp on how Devin Gardner projects is that his situation is so unique. On the one hand he was a five star quarterback coming out of high school stuck on the bench behind a Michigan icon. On the other hand he never looked great at quarterback until the five game stretch. He is more suited to what Al Borges is looking to do than Denard but is still more dual threat than Borges’ preferred traditional drop back style.
Adding to the uniqueness of Gardner’s situation is the fact that no other player made the list in his first five starts. There are hardly any that had a five game +14 streak in their first year as a starter let alone in their first five starts. Every one of the players on list did in the context of a full season as starter and of course none of them spent the prior eight games at wide receiver.
I do think Gardner should be one of the top couple quarterbacks in the Big Ten next season, at the very least. The big question that this raised is how high is his ceiling. After looking at the company and the challenges that came into it for Gardner I think it’s safe to say the ceiling is officially gone. I have looked at college football statistics every which way for years and no look has stood out to me as much as this one in its ability to translate to future success. Hopefully that bodes well for Michigan’s seasonand Gardner’s pro potential.