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A product of Detroit’s Inkster High School – which is no longer open – Gardner was a Rivals 4-star, the #1 dual-threat quarterback, and #132 overall in the 2010 class. He chose the Wolverines over offers from Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Oregon, among others. I was not giving out TTB Ratings at the time, but I named him Michigan’s best recruit in the class (LINK).
Hit the jump for lots more on Gardner’s career.
There was a hope that Gardner would redshirt as a freshman in 2010 while sitting behind Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier, but when Robinson got injured in the first game, Gardner indeed stepped in, which ruined his chance to redshirt. That seemed to be more of a punishment of Forcier, who had run afoul of the coaches, than a reward for Gardner. Regardless, Gardner went on to play in three games as a freshman, completing 7/10 passes for 85 yards and 1 touchdown; he also had 7 carries for 21 yards and 1 touchdown. Miraculously, he suffered a wink wink back injury, which would eventually allow him to take a medical redshirt for the year. As a redshirt freshman in 2011, he played sparingly as Robinson’s backup, completing 11/23 passes for 176 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception; he also ran 25 times for 53 yards and 1 score. Gardner was converted to wide receiver for the 2012 season in order to get the fleet-footed, 6’4″, 210-pounder on the field somewhere. Catching passes from Robinson for the first half of the year, he looked unpolished but decent on his way to 16 catches, 266 yards, and 4 touchdowns. When Robinson’s elbow was hurt against Nebraska, Gardner stepped back in at quarterback the following week and finished the year with 75/126 completions, 1219 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, plus 47 carries for 101 yards and 7 touchdowns on the ground. Gardner became the full-time starter in 2013, a year in which he played terribly to start and heroically near the end. He was 208/345 for 2,960 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, and he added 483 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. As a fifth year senior in 2014, he was 174/283 for 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, while also rushing for 258 yards and 4 touchdowns, all sandwiched around a very brief loss of his job to sophomore Shane Morris.
475-for-787 (60.4%), 6336 yards, 44 touchdowns, 32 interceptions
342 carries, 916 yards, 24 touchdowns
18 catches, 286 yards, 4 touchdowns
27 starts at quarterback, 4 starts at wide receiver
School-record 503 passing yards and 584 total yards against Indiana in 2013
Gardner came in with a lot of hype, and he showed flashes of brilliance throughout his career. If not for the guy who preceded him at the position, he would have been Michigan’s all-time most dynamic athlete at the quarterback spot. Unfortunately, team success did not come along with his talent. There was much gnashing of teeth – mine and others’ – when Gardner played immediately in 2010, because it seemed as if then coach Rich Rodriguez was sending a message to his team by sacrificing a year of Gardner’s eligibility. (The 2014 season was not pretty, but imagine Shane Morris starting for the entire year with Gardner having graduated. Yikes.)
When we finally saw Gardner for an extended period of time, he was a de facto redshirt sophomore in 2012 and he was playing wide receiver for the Wolverines. He actually led the team in receiving for a few games, had a few touchdown catches, and probably could have made a decent college career out of the position if not for the fact that he had a pretty good throwing arm, too. When Denard Robinson got hurt midway through the year, Gardner looked like the next big thing at quarterback. After practicing exclusively at wide receiver until everyone realized Russell Bellomy couldn’t hack it as Robinson’s backup, Gardner went under center for a week and then went 12/18 for 234 yards, 3 touchdowns (1 rushing), and 1 interception against a decent Minnesota squad. He threw an interception every game, but he also accounted for 18 touchdowns.
Things were looking good going into 2013, but the offensive line ultimately let down the team. Unable to run the ball or protect Gardner in any way, he threw loads of bad interceptions and took a beating throughout the year. He threw 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the first six games before calming himself down and throwing 10 touchdowns and just 1 pick over the second half of the year. The season included record-setting performances against Indiana; not only did he pass for 503 yards and account for 584 total yards, but he also helped wide receiver Jeremy Gallon set a Big Ten record for receiving yards in a game. Gardner ended his season with an unbelievable game against mighty Ohio State, where he broke his foot but continued on to bring his team within a hair’s breadth of victory; he went 32/45 for 451 yards and 4 touchdowns, while also rushing 9 times for 25 yards and 1 more score. After the broken foot was discovered, he sat out the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Many held out hope for continued maturation into his fifth year, but he and the rest of the offense continued to underperform. Gallon’s graduation meant that the new go-to guy was Devin Funchess, but Funchess got hurt early in the year and was never the same again. The running game improved somewhat, but Michigan had few threats in the passing game, and the best tight end, Jake Butt, was coming off of an ACL tear. After topping the 200-yard mark in passing eight times as a redshirt junior, Gardner managed just two such games in 2014, against Indiana and Ohio State. Additionally, he ran for 80+ yards four times in 2013, but just once in 2014, against Maryland. The team’s poor play got Gardner benched in favor of Morris for the beginning of the Minnesota game, but Morris was battered into a gimpy ankle and a controversial concussion. The fact that Morris was beaten up in little more than a half of a game while Gardner stayed mostly healthy (aside from the broken foot against Ohio State in 2013) for 2.5 years of starting gives an idea of how tough Gardner was. There were times when it looked like he wouldn’t be able to pull himself up off the turf, but often with a helping hand from a teammate, he got up over and over again.
I WILL REMEMBER HIM FOR . . .
. . . looking like a poor man’s Vince Young. That might not sound like a great compliment, but Young was a Heisman winner who made things look easy at times. Gardner was not a great decision maker, but he could make some beautiful throws, he could outrun the majority of players on the field, and he always had a chance to make any play exciting. The way he moved on the field was right out of a video game.
Gardner has resigned himself to the fact that he will almost surely have to play wide receiver if he wants to have an NFL career. At Michigan’s pro day in March, he measured in a little over 6’3″ and 218 lbs. He ran a 4.65 forty, did 15 reps on the 225 lb. bench press, showed off a 35.5″ vertical, broad jumped 9’9″, and ran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.42 seconds. Those numbers are solid but not amazing. Considering the fact that he is changing positions and does not have blazing speed, his options may be limited. However, there are other quarterbacks who have made the transition from quarterback to wide receiver in the NFL quite well – Josh Cribbs, Julian Edelman, Bert Emanuel, etc. Those guys generally seem to be smaller, quicker guys who can get open in the middle of the field, not big guys who can go against NFL corners – arguably the best athletes on the field – and win one-on-one battles. I think Gardner is going to struggle with the move to receiver, but he has size, leadership, toughness, and character on his side. I do not expect him to get drafted, but some team will pick him up as an undrafted free agent.