SOON. Via Maize and Blue Nation.
The biggest debate in Michigan fandom when Devin Gardner started taking warmup snaps at Gopher Stadium was whether to cut down, or across. Denard Robinson was incapacitated for God knows how long—it would turn out to be the duration of his career, at least as far as throwing was concerned—and Russell Bellomy was fresh off a 3/16, 38-yard, 3 INT performance in the second half of the Nebraska game. Doomy doom spread its doomy fingers across the land.
"Down" was winning handily through the first quarter as Michigan went three-and-out, two-and-out (an interception) and three-and-out in the first quarter. Then…
BOOM QUARTERBACK OUT OF NOWHERE
|opposite hash no problem|
|can't step in no problem|
|opposite hash again|
|zip in zone|
|slippery NW TD|
|third and eleven ok|
|very accurate deep|
|late but accurate|
|brilliant short flick throws|
|Funchess up high|
|toying with the defense|
|pass run pass TD|
|inaccurate when feet not set|
|TD, but way inside|
|corner way short|
|some bad INTs|
|misreads cover three|
Okay, we'll go with "across." For now.
Things got better from there. Gardner completed 47 yard passes to Gallon and Roundtree and even a 22-yarder to Jerald Robinson. (Yeah, remember that guy? I tell you, you think you know everything about Michigan football and then you're shocked when Jerald Robinson shows up on a box score not even a year old.)
Gardner executed a gameplan that was conservative in run/pass breakdown (only 18 attempts for Gardner versus 41 runs) but not in type of pass called (Gardner averaged 13 yards an attempt) as Michigan gradually blew out the Gophers.
And lo, your author gazed upon it and said…
I still find myself way on the conservative end of reaction to Gardner's performance. … Gardner had plenty of wide open dudes, and his throws were erratic. On the one hand, there was the picture-perfect bomb to Gallon; on the other, Dileo and Roundtree bailed Gardner out hardcore on the touchdown drive that put the game out of reach. The Dileo catch was a circus catch all the way, one that could have been made much easier.
Roundtree == Gardner TARP. MVictors
Meanwhile Roundtree broke open by yards and would have had an easy touchdown if Gardner had gotten the ball to the endzone on the opposite hash. As it was he had to circus Michigan out of an interception.
The commenters descended upon the author in their wrath.
The UFR basically bore this out. Here's Gardner's chart for the season:
note: moved one SC IN to BA based on a UFR correction from Space Coyote.
64% is solidly in the "meh" range, though it doesn't take those four scrambles into account. Add those in and it's a B, B+ performance. Also, low sample size and an offensive coordinator seemingly determined to keep things on the ground. I was leery that the things that didn't seem repeatable from the WRs would not repeat, and Michigan would be in trouble.
The next two weeks were wow experiences. Gardner was lethal against Northwestern…
a monster day, especially when you consider those five scrambles included a touchdown on second and goal from the eight and a third and eleven conversion. …
If Gardner can be as consistently accurate on deep balls as he has been so far, four verts is going to be an absolute bitch to defend—zone up and get outnumbered deep or play man and turn your back on this guy:
…Four-fifths of the time Gardner dropped back to pass something good happened, without the aid of an even halfway-credible running game. … there was exactly one inaccurate ball, that an out in the endzone to Gallon that glanced off his fingertips.
…and Iowa, though Iowa was barely trying at that point:
Unstoppable Throw-God Trevor Siemian is like "nice throw bud." It's just ten yards but it is also from a hash to the opposite sideline, there is no coverage in the world that stops it, and given all the other throws Gardner is made that doesn't seem like luck, it just seems like what Gardner does.
The hype was just about to kick in for serious if Michigan could take out Ohio State, but a bad thing happened at a bad time.
[after THE JUMP: accuracy issues, silly numbers from everywhere, redzone efficiency, speed of thought, stand up comedy, and Mr. Burns.]
Unfortunately, in the final two games Gardner's accuracy suffered. With 12 INs against OSU and South Carolina he quadrupled his flat-out misses from the first three games (screens excluded). He was making all the right throws, he was just throwing them in the wrong place.
A large part of this was Gardner's foot mechanics falling apart when Michigan asked him to roll out, which they did all the time in the final two games. I get it against Clowney, but a John-Simon-less OSU… that's weird. A lot of these rollouts were to the left, which makes for an awkward cross-body throw for a right-handed quarterback if he can't get set. Gardner could not on many throws; the results were balls many yards off target.
Against South Carolina the rollouts were less of an issue. Instead, Gardner just missed. This is my canonical example. No pressure, but Gardner's feet go all wonky and he doesn't end up stepping into the throw:
Gardner would come back on the next pass and nail Gallon in the numbers for a touchdown. Still, his 5.9 YPA and 50% completion rate were largely on him.
I wish this had happened in the first game, not the fifth one. The uptick at the end of the year is a potentially ominous sign. Or maybe it's just starting games at Ohio Stadium and against Jadeveon Clowney. Either way, this is the thing Gardner has to get better at. When he does step into throws…
The Number Told Me Itself And I Laughed
At season's end, Gardner's numbers were ludicrous by any measure you'd like to consider.
- His YPA was an outstanding 10.0, the same Al Borges managed with a senior Jason Campbell and the luxury of Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown. Result: that undefeated 2004 Auburn outfit that got cut out of the national championship game by Oklahoma.
- If he'd had enough attempts to qualify he would have finished 8th in the NCAA's passer efficiency stat.
- ESPN's nefangled QBR metric would have had him first nationally with sufficient attempts. That is especially meaningful because QBR has recovered from a rocky start to be intuitively correct (1-2 last year: Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota). Unlike traditional passer efficiency, QBR takes rushing, fumbles, strength of schedule, and game situation into account. So it understands that Michigan scored TDs on 15 of their 18 redzone trips with Gardner despite not having a running game, largely because of Gardner's crazy run-pass flip-at-any-time ways, about which more later.
- The Mathlete's Points Above Normal system does something similar to QBR, and found that the only quarterbacks who had performed as well as Gardner had in his metric over any five-game span are often incredible players. Current NCAA QBs include Manziel, Mariota, and Tajh Boyd. Ten of the other 25 in his sample are going to be NFL starters this fall.
- The system at College Football By The Numbers declared Gardner the most efficient passer and runner in the Big Ten. As a runner he was in fact the most efficient runner in the country, sacks excluded, because of his ability to pick up first downs and touchdowns. Low sample size, yeah, but you can regress that to the mean quite a bit and still come out impressed.
While my eyeballs tell me that Gardner was pretty lucky last year, he wasn't lucky enough to make the above irrelevant. Hell, I think that luck is mostly, if not entirely, offset by the fact that Michigan didn't have a running game except the other quarterback.
Let's go back to that QBR number, which is considerably influenced by Michigan's ability to turn red zone possessions into touchdowns under Gardner: 15 of 18 is an incredible number, especially when your run game is nonexistent. Gardner showed two abilities that make me believe this is a repeatable skill, not a fluke.
One: the section of his video table above entitled "brilliant short flick throws." When Michigan puts Gardner on the edge he has a unique ability to commit to the run and then flip out a pass:
In five games as the starter he's done this a half-dozen times. He just did it in the Mott scrimmage, for fun. It is a real skill. With it the proverbial run/pass option plays on the goal line become almost impossible to defend. South Carolina has that covered, and then the guy on Dileo comes up on Gardner because he properly reads run.
Two: Gardner's legs. If guy doesn't come up, Gardner just picks his way into the endzone. Even if he does, Gardner can get him off his feet with a pump fake and is gone.
His ability to explode outside and long body make it difficult to keep him from pylons everywhere. This year, teams will actually have to respect the run up the middle, making these rollouts… equally as effective. They cannot be more effective.
Snap judgments and speed of thought
I think we can say this about Denard without causing it to rain dead puppies: he was never the best decision-maker. Rodriguez revamped his offense into the Denard iso/QB Oh Noes pop pass show seemingly because he could not get Denard to make the right choices on the zone read, and you can see shades of that continuing throughout his career. Remember all those inverted veers on which Michigan would block the guy they were supposedly optioning? Well… what if those weren't actually inverted veers and were instead flat-out runs? Michigan's speed option game was option in name only, after all.
Decisions are supposed to come easier as you get older. It never happened with Denard. Maybe that's partially on a scheme change, but there wasn't a lot of improvement from year one to year two with Borges. Some guys just don't process information at the speed of light. Not everyone can be Tom Brady. It's okay. Just don't get me started on Denard's maddening refusal to take off on passing plays.
Too late! Boy, was that maddening.
Gardner does not have that problem. The 17 scrambles in the UFR table above—SCR, awarded for a good decision to leave the pocket and take off running—he acquired over the course of his five starts are two fewer than Denard had in two and a half years as the starter. While he did have happy feet for a goodly portion of the South Carolina game, that is a natural reaction when you're going up against a quarterback-killing outfit like the Gamecocks, and he did calm down enough to move around the pocket effectively in the fourth quarter.
The thing about Gardner is: his mental error rate was extraordinarily low for a guy who was…
- shoved into the lineup in a desperate situation,
- seeing his first extended playing time,
- taking his first practice reps at quarterback since the previous spring, and
- disinclined to trust his offensive line for very good reasons.
That guy should be going BJ Daniels on people—freshman Ryan Mallett on people. He should accidentally pick up a squirrel and throw it directly into a linebacker's chest. Instead it was a few relatively harmless missed coverage reads a game…
this was the regular ol' BR, when Gardner rifled it behind Funchess in an effort to keep it away from that linebacker as Roundtree was literally hand-wavingly wide open behind him:
…a couple of bad decisions to leave the pocket against South Carolina, and two dumb interceptions in his first two games. The rest of his problems were erratic mechanics leading to poor accuracy.
What's he going to do now that he's the man and knows he's the man? It might be pretty good. This may be personal bias from a guy who has acquired everything from a career to a wife because he's a snappy rejoinder sort, but the fact that Devin Gardner is a genuinely funny dude fills yrs truly with confidence.
Gardner displayed keen situational awareness at a road game at Purdue early in his career: "Me and Jeremy Gallon, neither of us were playing. We were standing on the bench, just chilling out, watching the game, and I hear 'DEVIN! DEVIN!,' you know, from the opposing crowd, and I'm like, 'Nah, I'm not turning around.' And then they go, 'GALLON! GALLON! IT'S FOR MY DAUGHTER!,' and I'm like, 'Don't turn around. Don't turn around. Promise.' Jeremy says, 'I ain't gonna turn around.' So I walk away for a second, and then I hear, 'YOU'RE A GALLON OF … SHHHHH' and I was like" — he sighs here, shaking his head and laughing — "Gallon turned around.
"And ever since then I loved playing there, because that was hilarious. I said to Gallon, 'I TOLD YOU.' He doesn't even turn around at home games now. He kinda got scarred after that."
When Holly Anderson visited Ann Arbor for Grantland, she filled a big chunk of her article with Gardner's standup routine. Is it irrational to believe this signifies his speed of thought is excellent? Maybe, but I'm doing it anyway.
Speaking of knowing he's the man…
Owning the offseason
With Whitfield and Manning
After having the quarterback job thrust upon him, Gardner's done everything he possibly can to reassure Michigan fans he'll take a quantum leap forward. He hung out with a broom-wielding quarterback guru…
“I was shocked,” Whitfield said. “I had only seen him in a couple cameos at Michigan. I was shocked at all the talent, how strong he was, how athletic, how fast."
…he showed out at the Manning Passing Academy—on time and sober and everything—to garner praise from literally every analyst asked about the thing from amongst a field of 41 college starters…
- MIKE MAYOCK: …he's 6'4", 210, he's got a buggy whip for an arm, he's highly athletic, he's raw as can be, but trust me—this kid's got some ability. I'm really anxious to watch him develop this year. …
- BRUCE FELDMAN: Out at Manning Camp and heard from a few folks talking about how impressed they've been w Michigan QB Devin Gardner. …
- BUCKY BROOKS: [Gardner] might be the next Ryan Tannehill. Limited experience, but athletic and a ultra-talented passer. Great physical tools. Big arm.
"Gardner said they've watched so much film this summer that he's having dreams about past games. It's not of other teams, but of themselves -- areas in games where they failed last year where if they'd corrected one or two minor things they'd have been successful."
…and he's taken the leadership reins as forcefully as he can:
"We've been throwing every chance we get. Everybody has different class schedules, so I'll come in two or three times a day to get all the receivers in. A lot of people finally understand that every year we've just been so close, we just missed our chance to get the Big Ten championship."
I'd heard that Gardner's work habits were not where the coaches wanted them to be in the past, partially because of Robinson's death grip on the job. It's hard to imagine that's the case now. Gardner has jumped into the job with gusto.
Devin Garner will be exxxxcelent
I'm in. I saw enough from Gardner to confidently project that his decision-making is excellent, arm strong, athleticism elite, and deep ball deadly. He's got a telepathic connection with Gallon. When plays break down his MacGuyver-like ability to conjure accurate throws of up to 15 yards from a back foot and a piece of chewing gum is incredibly useful, especially in the redzone.
The main—pretty much only—problem is the mechanical inconsistency with his feet that caused many of his throws against Ohio State and South Carolina to go anywhere but where they were supposed to. A diligent offseason was spent attempting to correct that issue, and the benefit of the doubt should be offered since he had largely stopped working on his mechanics in practice last year.
Gardner should challenge Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez for first-team All Big Ten. It says here he gets it.
The PIT of DESPAIR (and POTENTIAL)
Gardner needs to remain healthy.
With Russell Bellomy's injury knocking him out for the season, backup quarterback duties fall to SHANE MORRIS [recruiting profile] a gunslinging lefty with a huge arm. Morris was a seven-on-seven star and a top 25 kid to most of the sites before a mono-plagued senior year and erratic—okay, bad—all star game appearance knocked him down to 80th or 100th or so. Short on experience and prone to chucking balls at defensive backs, Morris needs time.
Unfortunately, he won't be permitted a redshirt with Bellomy out and the possibility Gardner might enter the NFL draft if he blows up this year. Scattered snaps here and there will be fine. If he is forced onto the field for an extended spell, the most likely result will be a rehash of Ryan Mallett's freshman year at Michigan, except with fewer fumbled snaps and sideline screaming matches. It still won't be good.
Long term, Ryan Mallett's a good comparable, except shorter, nicer, and left-handed.
Walk-on BRIAN CLEARY is the third string quarterback. See Sheridan, Nick.