|Can Gardner make an impact at wide receiver?|
|Written by Matt Pargoff|
With Michigan kicking off fall camp on Monday, one of the big questions catching the interest of fans is the development of players at the wide receiver position. Last season, Junior Hemingway played a major role in bailing the offense out of bad situations on many occasions. With his departure, as well as Martavious Odoms and the non-return of Darryl Stonum, the position is depleted from its previous status. Many feel junior quarterback Devin Gardner could be the answer.
The cupboard isn’t completely bare at wide receiver, of course. Michigan returns one of the better wide outs in the conference in senior Roy Roundtree. The Wolverines also have a host of several juniors, including Jeremy Gallon, Drew Dileo and Jeremy Jackson. Junior Ricardo Miller is working at both receiver and tight end, while sophomore Jerald Robinson is also challenging for more playing time.
Early reports from the first practice on oversized freshman Amara Darboh have been positive, and his classmate Jehu Chesson provides a speedier option at the position.
Regardless of who returns, there remains great interest in the potential role Gardner could play in the offense at the position. At 6-4, 203 pounds, his combination of size and athleticism is unrivaled on the team.
On Monday, head coach Brady Hoke confirmed that Gardner saw some snaps at the receiver position. However, he would not address how much time the backup signal caller would spend there in future practices or games.
What Gardner Brings
We have actually had the opportunity to see Gardner at wide receiver before, back when he was in high school. Prior to his junior year, he attended at the Michigan summer camp and gave wide receiver a try a few times. The following year, he did the same thing while participating in the Michigan 7-on-7 camp.
While it was a limited showing, we’re fairly confident in saying that he would have been a very highly rated wide receiver prospect out of high school had that been his position of choice. He is a phenomenal athlete and also possesses great size. He had no trouble at all catching the football.
As noted, it is Gardner’s combination of size and speed that make him an attractive option at the position. At 6-4, he is taller than any other scholarship receiver on the team. But he may also be as fast as any receiver on the squad. It is a combination of athletic attributes that is difficult to ignore. And given Michigan’s need for help at the position, he is a logical choice to chip in with his skills.
Similar to how Ohio State used Terrelle Pryor a few years back, one area where Gardner could really flourish is in the redzone, where his height could be utilized on jump balls.
One of the concerns about playing Gardner at wide receiver is on how it will impact his development as a quarterback. Should veteran starter Denard Robinson go down to injury, will Gardner’s time spent working at receiver negatively impact his play at quarterback? Or worse yet, will it impact his development long-term and affect his play as a starter next year?
Those matters will certainly be taken into consideration by the Michigan coaching staff when determining how much wide receiver work Gardner sees in practice. It will be a limiting factor. They will have to determine along the way how much is too much.
The good news there is, by playing quarterback; Gardner doesn’t have that much to learn about the receiver position. He already knows the routes. He understands better than most what happens when a receiver rounds off a route. He won’t be as refined in some of the finer points of the position, but his athleticism should allow him to find some success.
More than likely, Gardner will only go in at receiver when the Wolverines are passing the ball. That may tip Michigan’s hand on occasion, but he could be called on in obvious passing situation as well, when the defense would have known a pass was coming anyway. It is unlikely that Michigan will use its backup quarterback to block defensive backs on running plays. As a result, Gardner can focus most of his attention on just one aspect of the position. That should require less of his attention.
The Stanton Factor
From the moment former head coach Rich Rodriguez began recruiting athletic running quarterbacks to Michigan, which was before he even arrived on campus, it was clear the conflicting questions would arise at some point down the road.
If your backup quarterback is one of the best athletes on the team, how can you keep him on the sideline? If he is your backup quarterback, how can you risk his health at any other position?
This of course has a familiar ring to it for followers of Big Ten football – primarily due to the mishap of one of the Wolverines’ biggest rivals. In 2003, Michigan State under the leadership of John L. Smith allowed backup quarterback Drew Stanton to play special teams as a way of getting him on the field. It all seemed perfectly harmless until the young signal caller severely injured his knee in punt coverage against Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.
The injury required reconstructive surgery and Stanton was not back at full strength for the beginning of the following season, when he was the clear choice to be the Spartans’ starter.
Michigan fans should not kid themselves on this matter. There is some risk to the idea of playing Gardner at receiver. He will more than likely start at quarterback next year. Should he suffer an injury that carries over into the next season, or should playing received hamper his development as a signal caller, the experiment won’t have been worth the risk.
It’s that potentially negative tradeoff that makes fans, as well as the Michigan coaching staff, wary of playing around with Gardner’s position.
It is important to note, however, that there are differences from what happened with Stanton. The biggest inconsistency is the potential reward. Part of what made the Spartan snafu so bewildering was that there was very little to gain by to playing Stanton on special teams. There were plenty of safeties and linebackers on their squad that could have achieved the same success covering punts. By contrast, Gardner adds something different to the wide receiver position that no one else on the team can likely provide.
There is still certainly a risk-reward aspect of playing Gardner at wide receiver. There are some risks, but the reward may be high enough to take those chances.
As noted, we don’t expect Gardner to be an every down type of wide receiver. He would have to learn how to block. And even if he knew how to block, it would just expose him to too many dangers. If a running back or flailing defender came down on his legs while he was engaged blocking, it could be disastrous for Michigan.
At the same time, the coaching staff will not want to be constantly tipping its hand when it wants to pass the ball. That dynamic will ultimately limit how much he plays at receiver. He will likely play some at the position, but more than 10 plays a game would be a major surprise in games that are close or where Michigan leads. He could play more if the Wolverines are trying to come back from a deficit.
Gardner’s efforts at receiver likely will not resemble Charles Woodson’s time on offense, where many plays were specifically designed for the star cornerback. But the total number of plays could end up being about the same.