Let me guess. Denard goes down with an injury and it’s announced during pre-game warm-ups that he is out of the game. In comes the 2011 backup quarterback, Devin Gardner, in place of 2012 second string quarterback Russell Bellomy. Gardner puts up numbers that look like the following: 12-of-18 for 234 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, 10 carries for 21 yards and a rushing touchdown. Not only that, but on a day when the offensive line sometimes looked like swiss cheese against arguably one of the worst defensive lines in the Big Ten, Gardner ran around avoiding sacks and making plays until he found the open receiver.
I bet you think he should be the starting quarterback, right? Why shouldn’t he? If he can play like that and throw the ball like he did, he should be the guy behind center on Saturdays! Well, you’re wrong.
First of all, and most importantly, Denard Robinson is the heart and soul of this team. He is the undisputed leader of the ball club. The guy who has been there, working his butt off day in and day out to become a better player, all so he could try and lead this team to a championship. Denard was the guy who came to Michigan as Rich Rod’s dream quarterback. He stuck with the program through all of the losses and heartache, when Michigan football lost its identity because a coach was hired who didn’t understand what Michigan football was all about. You can’t replace leadership like Denard brings and no coach who wanted to keep their job would bench a player who represents everything that Michigan is at this time.
But look how well Gardner played, you say? Okay, let’s take a look at that. It’s not like Denard has never had a game like Gardner did against Minnesota. See Air Force and UMass this year. And Notre Dame and Nebraska last season. Speaking of last season, here’s Denard’s stat line for last year’s game: 15-fo-19 for 169 yards, two touchdowns, six carries for 51 yards and a touchdown. Eerily similar to Gardner’s. And that was against a Minnesota defense which had seven of the top eight back on the defensive line, their top six linebackers returning, and two of four starters back in the secondary. Devin Gardner didn’t do anything that Denard Robinson isn’t capable of. He simply stepped up when his team needed someone to fill in for Denard while he gets his elbow healed up. Speaking of stepping up, Michigan’s wide receiver corps had its best game of the season on Saturday. They did a great job of aiding Gardner in his efforts by making some big catches when it mattered.
Look, Gardner is an outstanding athlete who needs to be on the field. I thought the coaches were wise when, over the offseason, they started working Gardner in at receiver. Early in the season, it looked as if Michigan was going to be thin at the receiver position. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case at this point in the season, but that doesn’t change the fact that Gardner still needed to have a place on the field – alongside Denard, not instead of Denard. The coaches experimented with the two-quarterback system last year and it failed, so that wasn’t an option. A spot at receiver for Gardner was the answer.
If anything, what this situation has made clear is that Michigan’s offense has potential following Denard’s departure after this season. The second half of the Nebraska game had everyone worrying about whether or not Michigan could even be in contention in the Big Ten next season without Denard. Bellomy certainly wasn’t giving anyone any confidence. The next option might have been incoming freshman Shane Morris, a five-star, and the No. 2 rated quarterback in the nation, according to Rivals. But true freshmen QBs have growing pains too, even when they enter college as highly-touted prep stars. So even with Morris behind center, the Wolverines were looking at one, maybe two, years of a so-so offense behind a true freshman QB and an offensive which still needs work.
I submit that Gardner’s performance on Saturday did not answer the question ‘What does Michigan do at QB for the rest of this season?’ Instead, it answered, ‘What does Michigan do at QB next season?’ Gardner will be a senior next year, which means that Brady Hoke and Al Borges will be able to redshirt Morris. This means one year of practice to get up to speed with the complexity of the college game as compared to high school. It also means that Morris will have four more years of eligibility, making him even more valuable to the Michigan offense. And if Hoke can continue to bring in top recruiting classes, the pieces will be in the place for both Gardner next season and Morris in the future, especially if he can add LaQuan Treadwell, the nation’s top rated receiver.
Denard is statistically one of the best quarterbacks in Michigan football history. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Denard may not have the career passing numbers of a Chad Henne or a John Navarre. Nor does he have the win-loss record of some of Michigan’s best from the past. But he is the guy who stuck with the program through all of the ups and downs through the Rich Rod era and the guy who Michigan fans, and college football fans for that matter, have come to know as the face of Michigan football. He was a reason to be excited about Michigan football through these lean years because he gave Michigan a chance to win every Saturday. He is the undisputed starting quarterback for this football team as long as he’s healthy enough to play.