- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- The confidence Devin Gardner has, the understanding he possesses about being Michigan’s starting quarterback, began with an interception -- on the road, late in the season, in the first quarter of his first career start.
Minnesota picked him off, and the one-time wide receiver went to the sideline. As he stewed, his predecessor at the position, Denard Robinson, pulled him aside and gave him a quick talk. The message had a lasting influence, even now, as Gardner has become the point man of the Michigan offense.
“He was the guy, and he told me this was my team during the Minnesota game,” Gardner said. “He told me to take over and treat it as such. Ever since then, that’s how I looked at it and beyond.”
Publicly, Gardner still insisted late last season that it was Robinson’s team, saying so when asked directly. Personally, Robinson’s conversation propelled Gardner to believe the offense was his own.
Gardner played like it, compiling a 3-2 record and completing 75 of 126 passes for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
More than numbers, how Gardner worked through games and progressions in passing displayed the talent his coach, Brady Hoke, knew he had. Hoke’s initial issue with Gardner was that the quarterback didn't understand how Hoke wanted him to handle himself, in workouts, in practice and in games.
“Early in Devin’s career, Devin’s biggest enemy was Devin,” Hoke said.
At one point, Hoke threatened Gardner, telling him he might want to find another place to play. Hoke didn’t see the work ethic he wanted, and there was a small personality clash between the gregarious Gardner and the straight-laced coach.
Combine it with Gardner as the clear backup, and there would be reason for frustration. When he did play, one mistake could force him into another, because his opportunities were limited.
“He wasn’t happy with the way I was leading and the way I was performing,” Gardner said. “That’s happened with plenty of players in a lot of different programs. But I was determined to change his mind and help them have a different outlook on me.
“It was a long time ago. He didn’t really know me.”
Quarterback and coach became more comfortable with each other. Both, in Hoke’s words, matured. It culminated in Gardner choosing to move to receiver last season so he could get on the field.
Hoke saw Gardner work as a receiver after playing quarterback his entire life. Gardner learned a different part of playing football by being the guy who had to run routes instead of the one throwing them.
After Robinson was hurt against Nebraska on Oct. 27, Gardner came in the next week with a different understanding of what he wanted and needed to do. The verbal support from Robinson helped.
Then Gardner, who was the No. 5 quarterback in his high school class, became the quarterback he once expected to be when he left Inkster High School in Detroit. He became a starter.
“He doesn’t have that pressure of sharing time or changing positions,” safety Thomas Gordon said. “I think he feels a whole lot more comfortable. He’s a little less erratic at times.”
His teammates noticed, as he now jokes about his time moonlighting as a receiver. It is obvious in the way he carries himself and how he answers questions from the media.
He impressed George Whitfield Jr., the quarterback guru he worked with during the summer. Gardner said both Peyton and Archie Manning told him they were impressed with him after he worked out and coached kids at the Manning Passing Academy. He also is quick to add that the team he coached scored 42 points in a game, and kids wanted to play on his team by the end of the camp.
Gardner, though, is realistic. He is aware that while he has shown improvement, there are still things he hasn’t proved or doesn’t know yet. He has, after all, only started five games at quarterback.
“It’s always going to be that question mark,” Gardner said. “I haven’t won the big game. I haven’t really done much.”
For a while, he didn’t have his opportunity. Now he does, as more than another quarterback at Michigan or in the Big Ten; rather, as a player who is turning into the well-spoken, sharp-dressed face of the Wolverines' program.