It says somethin' about somethin' that Michigan had even the barest semblance of a Quarterback Controversy this offseason. It's not so much that Brady Hoke was going around saying it to people—football coaches' public statement are 95% motivational lies. It's more that a lot of people wanted it to be true.
By the midst of spring practice it seemed like half of the Michigan fanbase had an I WANT TO BELIEVE poster they'd adorned with Shane Morris's head in their room. Beat writers sent out a never-ending stream of WHAT ABOUT THE QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY articles that message boards passed around, nodding sagely about, until yrs truly was twitching every time I checked twitter. Finally, the dam broke:
WHEN IS THE LAST TIME MICHIGAN REPLACED A FIFTH YEAR SENIOR QUARTERBACK WITH AN UNDERCLASSMAN VOLUNTARILY
DON'T LOOK IT UP I'LL TELL YOU NEVER
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT SHANE MORRIS'S PERFORMANCE IN THE BOWL GAME THAT CONVINCES YOU HE'S THE GUY, EXACTLY
THAT ONE SCREEN PASS HE THREW THAT WENT A LONG WAY
OR THAT OTHER SCREEN PASS HE THREW THAT WENT A LONG WAY
OR THAT END AROUND THAT TECHNICALLY COUNTS AS A PASS
THE DUDE AVERAGED 5.2 YPA, WHICH IS THREET/SHERIDAN PRODUCTION
HE THREW AN INTERCEPTION THE INSTANT MICHIGAN LET HIM THROW DOWNFIELD
MICHIGAN SCORED SIX MEANINGFUL POINTS
DEVIN GARDNER WAS 80% DEAD MOST OF THIS YEAR AND STILL HAD 8.6 YPA
That about sums it up. The moment passed, people were yelled at to take their posters down, and Hoke named Gardner the starter in the middle of fall camp. But the discontent still lingers.
[After THE JUMP: SURROUNDED BY THE ENEMY STOP OUR LINES ARE BROKEN STOP SEND LOVE TO MY WIFE STOP]
SPEAKING OF THE CRANBERRIES… WE SOUR
unfortunately this year's OUT OF NOWHERE photoshop collage only makes us have sad feels about Gardner's ribs. [still via many valiant mgousers]
I'm not here to point the finger of blame at anyone in particular (the offensive line) as we try to diagnose the state of discontent (caused by the offensive line) that Michigan seems to have with the most important position on the field. I'm just going to say that if you put, say, an unholy Brady/Elway/Manning Frankenstein together and put it behind, uh, last year's offensive line (and tailback blocking), FrankenBraElMan's stitches would give way by the third quarter, leaving only viscera and a disembodied head moaning "I told you this was a bad idea, you never listen to me, you guys would listen to Tee Martin I bet."
It is a fact that quarterbacks get worse as they get hit, and it is a fact that nobody in the history of football took more brutal shots to the ribs than Devin Gardner last year. I counted. When Mike Spath hit up Big Ten players at media day, they had the same reaction most of us did:
"Toughest quarterback we played. By far. He took so many hits in our game and kept getting back up. And kept going back to the huddle. At some point, it's like, 'Why don't you just stay down. You're going to hurt yourself."
"I don't know how he survived our game. I think he went to the sideline once or twice and they brought their lefty in, but you couldn't knock him out. That was impressive. And we came after him. We beat him up. We beat up a lot of quarterbacks, but never like that.
"The one thing about it, and he's not different than other quarterbacks, but the more you hit him, the worse they get. … That was the worst line we played against all year, and we played some bad non-conference teams."
He had a number of problems that were his own, but you absolutely have to look at his numbers in context. Here's one: NFL completion percentage as QBs get progressively more destroyed.
Note the steep slope at the end there, and envision that continuing. Devin Gardner is several feet to the right of where your monitor ceases.
Here's some more: I took a look at Michigan and the other major-conference teams with a sack rate of approximately 8.4%. Here are their numbers:
[Teams ordered by YPA]
|Name||G||YPA||TD||Int||Rating||SACK RATE||INT RATE|
As mentioned above, remove the bowl game and Michigan's YPA leaps to 8.6.
This table has quite a diverse selection of college football teams. Some of them cope. Some are Purdue. And amongst the sack-heavy, Michigan's performance is on the Tyler F-ing Lockett/Brett Hundley/Cody Kessler end of things. (Yeah, Indiana. The only teams on this list that played them also had to play MSU; call it a wash.)
Since Michigan's pass protection was very likely even worse than the sack numbers suggest, it's not hard to conclude that there were very few quarterbacks in the country who could have matched Gardner's numbers given the shocking state of the rest of the offense. The teams at the top here had functional-or-better running games, for one. Life threw everything it could into Devin Gardner's ribs and he came out pretty okay.
And once you take take those sacks out, Gardner ran for 750 yards at 5.8 a pop. Take my quarterback, please. Please don't. /self high five
OKAY HE AIN'T JAMEIS
It all started so well. After a de rigueur walkover of Central Michigan, Devin Gardner took on a foreboding Notre Dame defense fresh off dragging a mediocre offense to the national championship game. The line was perforated time and again; Gardner stood in and delivered rockets. After it was over, I was rather excited:
Don't be ridiculous.
Aw man I'm just havin' some fu—
Heisman doesn't cover it. MacArthur genius grant is more like it.
At the time this was absolutely justified. NFL scouts who saw that were highly excited. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks said Gardner was "not only capable of playing in the NFL but has the tools to be a franchise quarterback."
There was just… you know… that. The worst play you or I have probably ever seen. At the time we tried to shrug it off as just one play. We could not; the Notre Dame game was only the first in a series of bad decisions that led to the aforementioned sourness. Some of them were mitigated by line play. Others were not. Events against Penn State were a good summary of one of Devin's three primary issues:
Penn State did a good job messing with Gardner's reads on two passing downs early; the first interception kind of seemed like a brilliant improvisation by the underneath PSU corner, who left Dileo wide open to undercut Gallon's hitch after seemingly dropping with the slot. The second interception was Zettel dropping off on a zone blitz to cover another Gallon hitch. PSU clearly entered with a gameplan to undercut Gardner's favorite receiver in confusing ways and executed that; Michigan obliged with the hitches and reacted like a scalded dog.
Gallon lock-on syndrome was a real thing. On certain plays it seemed like Gardner was going with his primary read no matter what.
Issue number two is just straight-up accuracy. For yet further context, let's bring in his 2013 UFR chart. (If you don't know what any of this means, there is a helpfully explanatory post here. You can also mouseover the column headers for brief descriptions of what each column means).
Devin Gardner 2013
Stars are issued for the "extreme" versions of inaccurate balls and bad reads, as those often result in interceptions. That is a lot. You're probably looking at the Northwestern column and you're just like "oh right, that."
Most games against actual defenses saw him throw five balls that were totally uncatchable, with various other problems besides. The 2011 preview has an equivalent chart for Denard Robinson in which he is putting up similar numbers for most of the Big Ten season, coming up with a lot of downfield success rates in the mid-60s. You can make that work if you're Denard Robinson.
If you're not the best runner Michigan has seen since at least Ty Wheatley, you want to push those inaccurate balls down significantly and start regularly hitting the 70s in DSR. Gardner was up and down, with an all-time performance gainst ND followed by a questionable one against Akron, of all teams, before settling in at "meh" for the stretch run. Again, it's worth pointing out the line: 2011 Denard had all of eight attempts filed under "pressure"; Gardner dealt with a whopping 39(!).
more this, less zombie
Problem #3: Gardner struggled to disconnect himself from the high school stuff we all thought was cool when he was whipping around like a maniac against Minnesota in his first game as a starter. It turns out that when defenses have an idea of who you are, that doesn't happen so much.
Early in the year, Gardner used that high school stuff as crutch even when it made no sense, like when UConn is rushing three guys:
Gardner's pocket presence did improve over the course of the year. When he got pressure against Iowa and Ohio State he moved forward if he could and ate sacks if he couldn't, and while he's always going to be prone to revert to running around like a madman, if that happens once a game it might work.
So he's not Jameis, even if you account for the issues with the line. But could he be?
I HAVE AN IDEA: WHAT IF WE COACHED HIM GOOD
Nussmeier and protégé 
I'd heard that Al Borges was not likely to get let go for most of the year. I'd also heard that if Borges did get the axe the reason was that Hoke didn't believe that Borges was an effective quarterbacks coach. (Recall that at SDSU Hoke had Borges as his OC and Brian Sipe as his QB coach.) This information comes from the gold standard, so I believe it. And when Hoke went out to get a new guy, he picked someone with a terrific track record in that department.
Doug Nussmeier coached up Keith Price, and when he left Price's performance collapsed. He coached up AJ McCarron into a Heisman contender, and when the NFL took a look at him they saw the same floppy-banged, floppy-armed 'Bama QB they always do. Hell, Nussmeier coached Drew Stanton to ridiculous heights (8.7 YPA in 2005!); Stanton backslid to 6.7 as a senior, when Nussmeier was with the Rams. Three is at trend. Nussmeier has a track record that's close to unimpeachable.
At Michigan, Nussmeier has installed… uh… a West Coast offense. Borges always called his stuff that and it may well have been in the original, San Diego Chargers sense where the deep ball is king; it seems like Nussmeier's version is a lot closer to the 49ers version of the WCO. Hello hot routes!
"He's brought a lot, and done a lot for me to be able to protect myself in the passing game and getting us in the right run checks and things like that, and it's been exciting," Gardner said. …"if I am going to have to be hot (against a blitz), I'll know how to protect myself. Or, throw (a hot route) to a receiver. It's been amazing for me."
And stuff shorter than a million yards!
Jeff Hecklinski: “Probably the biggest difference with Doug is the amount of underneath routes we have… the amount of built-in underneath, the intermediate, the deep routes that we have, where everybody is in a different position throughout different plays.”
And being able to look at the damn defense before you snap the damn ball because you got out of the damn huddle (which you shouldn't even be doing anymore) with more than ten damn seconds on the damn playclock!
Frank Clark: "The practice tempo is way faster this year. When he first brought in during the spring, we were like 'man, five reps? Six reps straight?' Fast-tempo stuff, we call it NASCAR, we were like, 'man, how are we going to deal with this?'"
I may have just crushed a beer can with the power of my mind!
I'm not sure how much Doug Nussmeier can do with one spring practice and one fall practice, but the changing structure of the offense puts a lot more on Devin's plate. Hopefully it will give him time to make those pre-snap checks, unlike last year's Borges-coordinated snail-fest. To make smart decisions you must have information, something that the tempo of last year's offense too often stripped from its quarterback.
I don't know if the bad decisions are because of last year's chaos or a limitation of Gardner's. I mean, it's obviously some of both. But I wonder just how prepared Gardner was to take advantage of things that cropped up during games. If you go back to the MSU debacle, Michigan had a number of opportunities to score long touchdowns, but they did not take advantage. Watch Funchess become hand-wavingly wide open after Gardner comes off of him:
Was it possible for Gardner to find that? Did Michigan not see it and go back to it? If they had a tight set of plays they knew common reactions to and could adjust, would the pop-pass-whoops-touchdown thing have happened? I don't have answers to any of these questions. I am obviously hoping that Borges was the worst football coach ever, because that means we might get a GERG-to-Mattison transition.
But we won't know until we know.
LIMITLESS POTENTIAL (THAT HE PROBABLY WON'T REACH)
I know this is probably a bad idea because anything resembling Notre Dame-induced hope is a bad idea But I think we should momentarily revisit what Devin Gardner felt like in the aftermath of the Notre Dame game, when he stood in the face of rusher after rusher and delivered hot fiery death to the missionaries.
JEEEEEEEEBUS H FEIST!
I mean, look at that last one. What is that? How do you do that?
That was unsustainable in the same way that hitting six straight three pointers is, but that don't mean Nik Stauskas ain't a boss. Before he was beaten down, before defenses could tee off of the things they thought were coming and Michigan didn't have time to check out of, Gardner was dealing.
If he can be that guy… man. He is a redshirt senior who can lope away from cornerbacks and stand in the pocket to deliver. He's probably not going to be that guy just because being Tom Brady is really hard. This is why there is only one of him. But if Gardner gets locked in he can win any game on the schedule by himself.
Devin Gardner is a guy you can win a lot of things with. If you picked him up and put him in virtually any of Michigan's previous Big Ten champions, those teams probably get better. He put up quality numbers in the face of terrible pressure, while hardly able to breathe for big chunks of the year and literally wandering around with a broken foot against Ohio State. He is good and Michigan is lucky to have him.
I don't know how that looks behind this offensive line. Gardner suffered like anyone else would have if put under siege, and that siege looks like it may continue. But you don't come here for waffling.
Gardner is an A- guy. His decisions are not good enough from time to time even when you account for the physical and mental beatings he takes; other than that he's got everything you could want. In Nussmeier's hands he should take a step forward to be the obvious choice for first team All Big Ten in Braxton Miller's absence.
[Seth Fisher. Morris's head by Fuller.]
SHANE MORRIS [recruiting profile] may not have been a real challenger to start, but neither is anyone a serious challenger to his status as #2. Morris arrived at Michigan fresh off a mono-plagued senior year with an enormous arm and no idea what to do with it; he was forced to play thanks to Russell Bellomy's ACL tear and Michigan's unwise decision to skip a QB in the class in front of Morris.
Those worries were put away for later after a strong performance in Michigan's open fall scrimmage. He still looked young and foolish from time to time, but far less so than in the past. He moved around the pocket well and used his trademark arm strength to good effect. It looked like significant progress, to everyone's relief. He is the heir apparent.
The big question here is "can they redshirt him?" They should; imagine this year without Gardner. With Bellomy healthy there's a chance they skip the garbage time snaps and only turn to him if Gardner is out for a significant period of time. (Like, say, for something other than losing his helmet.)
We aren't likely to find out who the #3 really is, but if another guy gets in the game this year it will be RUSSELL BELLOMY. Bellomy's probably going to go down in history as the guy who was so overwhelmed in the 2012 Nebraska game, as it seems like he's been passed by not only Morris but also Speight.
Speaking of: freshman WILTON SPEIGHT [recruiting profile] should redshirt. He's a 6'6" artillery piece in the Navarre mold.