- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
As Michigan’s preseason approaches at the end of this week, WolverineNation takes a look at the 10 players who are most indispensable for the Wolverines this season. This doesn’t mean the most talented players, but rather the players, if Michigan lost them, would be in the most trouble.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Devin Gardner’s future -- at Michigan, in football -- was an enigma a season ago. Would he be a quarterback? A wide receiver? Could he realistically transition from throwing passes to catching them and if he did, would he be the deep threat Michigan was missing.
He was, kind of. Gardner proved to be a capable wide receiver last season, but when Denard Robinson injured the ulnar nerve in his right arm, ending his time as a quarterback, Michigan and Gardner found the deep passing threat it had lacked since Brady Hoke and Al Borges took over at Michigan.
The difference was, Gardner was the one throwing the long, often accurate passes to Roy Roundtree, Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. His performance over the last third of the season turned his future from being a question of position to one of whether or not he could have a good enough season this year to make the jump from college to the NFL.
His skill set, combined with a confluence of other factors, makes Gardner the most indispensable player Michigan has this season.
Last year’s stats: 75-126-5-1,219, 11 touchdowns, 59.5 completion percentage and a 161.66 efficiency rating. 16 receptions, 266 yards, 4 touchdowns receiving. 47 carries, 101 yards, 7 touchdowns rushing.
Where does he fit on Michigan’s offense/defense?
He is Michigan’s starting quarterback, only quarterback with experience and one of its unquestioned leaders. Ever since Denard Robinson was injured against Nebraska last season and Gardner took over the next week, this was going to be his job to lose the rest of the way. His work ethic -- and an ACL injury to backup Russell Bellomy -- cemented his spot as a starter.
What happens if he’s out of the lineup?
Panic. Michigan won’t admit as much, but none of the other healthy quarterbacks on the roster have taken a snap. There’s a true freshman, Shane Morris, and two walk-ons who might as well be in Brian Cleary and Alex Swieca. Like many offensive coordinators, Al Borges will cater a lot of what Michigan does offensively this season to Gardner’s particular strengths, which include a strong arm and enough legs to keep defenses from abandoning guarding against a quarterback run. None of Michigan’s other options -- experience aside -- have those skills, either. If Gardner were to go down for a length of time, Michigan would struggle heavily on offense.
Bottom line, why is he critical to Michigan’s season?
He is, with little doubt, the most important piece to the Wolverines season. Brady Hoke and the Michigan staff always like to say the expectation is for the position and not the player. Well, in this case for Michigan, any expectation Michigan has for a successful season will be dictated by the progress and success, or failure, of Gardner. As covered above, Gardner is the most talented player and top option -- by far -- at the most valuable position in football.