As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
Can Wolverines put Devin Gardner in a position to succeed?
Say what you want, but Gardner was pretty good at quarterback for the Wolverines last season.
But if you watched games like the one against Michigan State or the one against Nebraska or the one against Northwestern, you’ll remember the Wolverines quarterback having to constantly have to peel himself up off the turf.
Gardner was thrown around like a rag doll during much of last season, with an underperforming offensive line and no threat of a rushing attack turning him into a human piñata. In back-to-back games against the Spartans and Huskers, Gardner totaled -78 rushing yards and was sacked a combined 14 times. The Wildcats sacked him five more times in their meeting. On the season, the Michigan offensive line allowed 36 sacks, the most by a group of Wolverines in 15 years.
That offensive line, despite having a player selected in the first round of the NFL Draft (Taylor Lewan), was trouble a year ago. The Wolverines were one of the conference’s worst rushing teams, accounting for just 125.7 yards on the ground each game (second worst, better than only Purdue). That can be attributed partially to the lack of a strong back and the scheme of now-departed offensive coordinator Al Borges, but between the weak run game and Gardner being constantly being under duress, the offensive line shoulders much of the blame.
In fact, Gardner’s constant punishment ended in a broken toe that had him limping around against Ohio State and missing the bowl game.
It’ll be the O-line that could determine how well Michigan’s revamped offense will perform under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who comes in from Alabama. Because as far as Gardner is concerned, he has the ability to lead a strong offensive attack. Yes, there were the bad days — he threw a trio of picks in a near-loss to Akron — but only one quarterback in the league averaged more pass yards per game than his 246.7 and only three threw more than his 21 touchdown passes. His 3,443 yards of total offense ranked second in the conference by just 10 yards. He scored 32 total touchdowns.
The guy’s a playmaker, and he certainly showed it in that epic regular-season finale against Ohio State, when he threw for 451 yards and four touchdowns and rushed in for another score. He also had the incredible performance against Indiana, when he threw for 503 yards and accounted for five total touchdowns (three rushing) in a 700-plus-yard offensive day for the Wolverines.
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And while the receiving corps is a little thinner — top target Jeremy Gallon moved on, as did Drew Dileo, and tight end Jake Butt is injured — the running game figures to be better, with former top recruits a year older and presented with a more prominent role. It gives Gardner a little protection.
There could be a challenge from within in backup Shane Morris, who started in Gardner’s place in a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State. Morris didn't play that well, but he definitely has the confidence.
"Every day I'm coming out here and I'm treating it like I'm going to be the starting quarterback at Michigan," Morris said in a video released by the school just a few days ago.
"It's a competition, and every day I come out here and work to be No. 1.”
So much like opposing defenses did last season, the challenges keep coming at Gardner from every direction. Though last season was a generally underachieving one for the Wolverines, Gardner consistently impressed with his toughness. With a ton of success in that Ohio State game, the whole country got to see what he’s capable of. Gardner could be a big-time playmaker in his senior year, but he needs his fellow Wolverines to give him a chance to do so.