After two games this season, Michigan fans were ready to name Devin Gardner the Heisman favorite and redeemer of Michigan quarterbacking.
But after four? They wanted him on the bench.
Now -- given the down or the series -- he's somewhere in between.
Gardner is a hazard and an interception waiting to happen, some said. He wasn’t the right fit at quarterback, others replied. Give youth a chance and build the offense around true freshman backup Shane Morris, they proclaimed.
In his 26 years in the game, offensive coordinator Al Borges has heard it all.
“The backup’s the best player until the backup plays,” Borges said, “and then they don’t want him to play anymore.”
What most people don’t remember is that Gardner is still young by quarterback standards. Yes, he’s a redshirt junior, but he is just 10 starts into his career. He spent most of last year studying as a wide receiver. He was recruited into a spread offense by Rich Rodriguez, one that most likely better suits his talents.
That amount of transition that Gardner has gone through in his Michigan career reminded Borges a bit of 2004, when he became the Auburn offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for Jason Campbell.
Campbell had been through three coordinators in three years, and the fan base had turned against him.
“Everybody wanted to replace him -- they said, ‘This kid, he’s not confident, he makes bad decisions, let the other kid play,’ ” Borges said. “Same old deal.”
So Borges did with Campbell in 2004 what he’s doing with Gardner now. From a mechanical and technical standpoint, he returned to the basics -- the footwork, the nuance, the angles, the inches.
From a mental standpoint -- which in both Campbell’s and Gardner’s cases might be the more important element -- Borges simply told them he believed they could be the quarterbacks of their respective offenses.
“I don’t think it was any earth-shattering coaching deal,” Borges said. “It was just making the kid believe that he was still the answer when a lot of people didn’t think that.”
For Campbell, it worked. That season he was named the SEC Player of the Year, MVP of the SEC Championship Game and MVP of the 2005 Sugar Bowl. He threw for 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed 69.6 percent of his passes, good enough for second-best on the all-time Auburn completion list (just barely behind Ben Leard’s 70.7 percent).
It wasn’t that Borges came in and changed how Campbell played the game. He just instilled a mental framework that helped him to be at ease on the field.
“He’s a confidence builder,” Campbell said. “From the day he walked in he said, ‘You already have the ability to do anything you want to do as a quarterback.’ ”
And that’s what Borges did after Gardner struggled against Akron and UConn. He spent the bye week returning to fundamentals, but also reminding Gardner that he was in fact the answer for the Michigan offense.
“The worst thing for a quarterback is to be looking over his shoulder and things like that,” Gardner said during the bye week. “For [Borges] to have that kind of confidence in me after I played so bad was pretty refreshing for me.”
Against Minnesota, Gardner’s confidence shone. He didn’t turn the ball over at all, and he threw for 235 yards and one touchdown. He looked solid. He smiled. He was loved by the fan base once more.
Then the first half against Penn State struck, and Gardner, once again, looked out of place. And again, fans wanted to know why Morris wouldn’t be given a chance.
Even though he hadn’t played since the Central Michigan blowout. Even though the Wolverines were playing in front of a raucous crowd. Even though Michigan’s best offensive lineman was out of the game.
“People always say the guy behind should be the starting quarterback, no matter what level it is,” Campbell said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re playing in college or in the pros. The guy that’s playing behind the starter is always going to be the most popular guy in town.”
But Gardner calmed down and managed to put together a solid game overall. He even gave the Wolverines a chance to win. If Michigan had been able to produce a run game outside of Gardner, maybe that would’ve happened.
And by some standards, what showed real growth was that when he struggled on the field against Penn State, he still seemed relaxed on the sideline.
During the Akron and Connecticut games, Gardner spent time by himself in silence or speaking with Borges on the headset while his defense was on the field. He said he wanted to be inside his own head and try to block everything else out.
But during the Penn State game he spoke with teammates. It was a suggestion by Michigan’s director of athletic counseling Greg Harden, a man who helped Tom Brady and Desmond Howard, among others during their Michigan tenures.
In reality though, it seems as if Gardner has little to worry about. His offensive coordinator and head coach are confident in him, and on Monday Hoke said “there is no short leash” when it comes to Gardner.
But the fear is always there, and Gardner is a perfectionist.
There is no such thing as a perfect game, Campbell explained. But playing with confidence rather than fear will help a quarterback get closer to that standard. And knowing that Borges and Hoke are in his corner will only help as the season goes on.
“It gives you free reign to go out and play, because you know you have someone who has your back, and you know there’s someone who believes in you and that helps you to believe in yourself and believe in what you can do and your ability,” Campbell said. “For Gardner, that’s the thing he needs to know. He just needs to go out there and play, cut it loose.”