Ohio State football: Can Devin Gardner make 'the leap' for Michigan?

Jamie Sabau

With Denard Robinson off to untie his shoelaces in the NFL on a practice squad near you, Devin Gardner takes the helm in Ann Arbor. The ESPN Big Ten Blog talked to him and offensive coordinator Al Borges. It only felt right to mock it.

Generally speaking, I love the work that Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett do at ESPN's Big Ten Blog. It's a must-read in season (and off) for fans of the Buckeyes and the conference in general, and they have the Worldwide Leader's media and tech savvy on board with them to bring the most comprehensive coverage of our beloved Big Ten on the Interwebs (other than here in the Holy Land, of course).

So you should read them and follow the blog on Twitter to get all the news. That's a given. But it's the offseason, and as such so has begun the silly season for football blogs and bloggers all over the Internet. And what could be sillier than sitting down with the new starting quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines? With the Denard Dynasty coming to its inevitable conclusion (with a loss to Ohio State), Gardner takes the reins, which will be held surprisingly loosely, by offensive coordinator Al Borges.

So with all due respect to the Big Ten Blog guys, let's see what the game plan is for the Wolverines this year, FJM style.

Devin Gardner gains mental edge

That's it. That's the joke.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner compiled his goals card for spring practice, he wrote down two words: no limitations.

Denard's card last year also had one goal: "Do that stupid teeth-brushing/soup-eating thing after rushing for three yards on third-and-six.

After a winter to prepare as the Wolverines' starter, Gardner wanted offensive coordinator Al Borges to operate without restrictions. Whatever Borges intended to throw his way, Gardner would be ready.

"Coach Borges can call anything he wants, from any formation, set or anything," Gardner told ESPN.com. "I talked to him about it, and he said he's very comfortable with me, calling anything at any time."

So Al Borges, famous for developing the "Gulf Coast Offense" and quickly dismissing it when he got to Ann Arbor, will now have no limits on his play calling with regard to his quarterback, who was last seen starting at wide receiver with some looks at QB. Okay.

[Gardner] exceeded most expectations in Michigan's final five games, accounting for multiple touchdowns in all five contests and at least three scores in four. But not surprisingly, there were some limitations to his game, like with audibles at the line.

Limitations like that are usually what happens when you don't line up at quarterback for three years.

"I definitely understood when I needed to get out of a play, but I didn't ever really change plays to a better play last year," he said.

Gardner now has the luxury of advantage audibles, as Borges calls them, which are based more on wants than needs.

That first sentence, though. So much playing! And now he can call "advantage audibles" to better suit his wants than needs. Which means he'll probably audible to halfback pass to the quarterback every other series at least twice.

"If I see they're in a defense where the play we have called, it'll be fine, but there's a much better play that will give us a better play, he's let me do that," Gardner said.

No limitations?

"Any play in the playbook," he said.

"PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't audible to a Pick-6!!!" Al Borges thought to himself during every offensive possession.

It took some time this spring for Gardner to get comfortable with his new freedom/responsibility, but he said every check he has made at the line has turned into a "plus play" for the offense. Borges is willing to loosen the reins for his top quarterback as long as there's "good rationale" for making changes.

"Good rationale" is an interesting thought and not one that Michigan has seen in the past, considering the only play call Denard ever audibled out of was "throw jump ball to corner" and into "throw jump ball to safety".

But don't expect Gardner to operate like Peyton Manning does this season.

Noted.

"We don't want him calling the whole game," Borges said, "but there are instances where there are things he can take advantage of. There are situations where I don't call the right play, and he's got to get us out of that."

I'm all about having a field general, but come on, Al. You've spent 25 years as an offensive coordinator, but let's be sure to give the benefit of the doubt to your wide receiver turned quarterback because science or whatever.

"Devin is really smart with numbers," Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "He understands the concepts of football, the concepts of our schemes. The zone power, the downhill run stuff, the zone-power combos, the isos, Cover 1, Cover 2, and how to change the play to put us in the best situation to be successful."

A Michigan Man is smart with numbers? Must be one of those General Studies that everyone up there majors in.

According to Gardner, the offense Michigan ran at the end of the 2012 season has remained practically the same. The spread isn't totally dead -- "We're almost no spread offense now, with a few spread principles," Borges said -- but the Wolverines will primarily operate from a pro-set. Gardner said he's taking 70 percent of snaps from under center, and Borges doesn't want Gardner carrying the ball more than 10 times a game.

Michigan running a pro-style offense, depending on a pro-style quarterback playing primarily under center, and still probably relying too much on a running back. Does anyone have Mike Hart's number to ask him how well that worked against Ohio State in the past?

It doesn't mean Michigan won't use Gardner's athleticism. Borges has studied what NFL teams like the Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson), the San Francisco 49ers (Colin Kaepernick) and the Washington Redskins (Robert Griffin III) are doing with dual-threat quarterbacks like Gardner.

Something something cornball Michigan Man something Kaepernick something.

"Any pieces that look like they might fit with what we do," Borges said. "College football isn't pro football. It's different, but you can implement a lot of the same things they do because they do so many things well."

College football isn't pro football, but screw it, we can probably do the same things because Kaepernick, RG III and Wilson do against better competition with a wide receiver playing quarterback. Got that?

Could Gardner be one of the next dual threats to reach the NFL? Like his goals card, Gardner's potential seems to have no limitations.

That's the joke, too.

"The kid has really worked hard," Borges said. "The game's important to him, and now he gets an opportunity he's been waiting for."

Trust me, Al: Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby are waiting for it, too.

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