- Marissa McClain/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published August 19, 2012
Even from his days at Inkster High School, now redshirt junior linebacker Cam Gordon couldn’t really remember teammate Devin Gardner ever receiving. Back then, it was the Gordon doing the receiving and Gardner the throwing.
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As one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks, though, Gardner was always a special athlete. “He can do it all,” Gordon said.
Now, he may need to.
Lacking the depth at receiver they enjoyed last season, Michigan coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges have been experimenting with Gardner, a quarterback, at wide receiver. Borges said Gardner remains the No. 2 quarterback.
This isn’t a last-minute change; Hoke hinted toward the move during spring practices. But with less than two weeks until the opener, Michigan must weigh the upside of an extra receiving option against Gardner’s potential stunted growth at quarterback — all while Gardner scrambles to fit in sufficient reps at both positions.
That’s the price Michigan must pay for Gardner’s athleticism at receiver.
“We’re developing him at two different positions, and let me tell you, that’s a challenge,” Borges said following a practice earlier this month. “For a kid to be an occasional player is one thing, but to be a guy that you’re really kind of splitting time with, that’s a challenge.”
The two-way player isn’t a novel concept in college football. Think Michigan’s Charles Woodson and Ohio State’s Chris Gamble (both defensive backs and receivers) or more recently, Stanford’s Owen Marecic, a linebacker and fullback. Gardner, though, is distinctive in that he must learn two positions on the same side of the ball. And of course, he differs in that he is a quarterback.
In one way, that gives Gardner an advantage, Borges said. He really doesn’t have any new assignments to learn. Plus, Gardner’s teammates gush about his athleticism.
“I feel like he can play anywhere,” said redshirt senior safety Jordan Kovacs. “He could probably play my spot if he really tried.”
At quarterback, though, Gardner hasn’t exactly shown much polish. Gardner, who will likely compete for the starting quarterback job next year after senior quarterback Denard Robinson departs, played in nine games in 2011 and completed 11 of 23 attempts. At times he moved the offense quite well, as he did against Illinois. Other times, his decision-making could only be described as strange, resulting in some wild backward scrambles against Michigan State and Minnesota.
In the limited practice time the Wolverines enjoy before traveling to Dallas to face Alabama, every rep he takes at receiver robs time otherwise spent refining his passing skills. Though Gardner said he tries to squeeze in as many receiver reps as he can when he’s not passing, Borges recognizes the trade off.
“It’s tough because there’s not that many reps,” Borges said. “You get X amount of reps and you have to figure out how to get them those reps without killing them. It’s hard. It’s not easy to do.”
He continued: “I mean it’d be bad coaching if he’d be standing next to me the whole game when you have a guy who can really help us.”
Gardner spent the summer learning the new position, and he emphasized conditioning, according to senior receiver Roy Roundtree,
“You could see him get fatigued,” Roundtree said after the team’s first fall practice, “but at the end of the day I just told him you’re getting better because you’re helping the team.”
Gardner himself said neither Hoke nor Borges have communicated what his role will be exactly. “I guess it’s a secret,” Gardner said with a laugh, but it’s more likely that the coaching staff isn’t yet sure of his role, either. The experiment will likely remain a work-in-progress for Michigan. Borges described it as in the “embryonic stages” and admitted he has yet to determine how much he’ll utilize Gardner at wide out.
When pressed, Gardner still identifies as a quarterback, but he said he’s more interested in helping the team win. He called the experiment fun.
“Yeah, Devin would go out there and talk smack to all the DBs,” Roundtree said. “And I’m just sitting out to the side being like, ‘Man, what’s about to happen?’ ”