For the past two summers while attending the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana as a counselor, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner received tips from greats Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning. The Manning group loved Gardner, as much for his explosive skill set as for his engaging personality. Then he left -- and organizers were even more impressed.Michigan’s fifth-year senior quarterback was the lone player to send a handwritten thank-you letter to each of the four family members, including oldest son Cooper.That’s the Gardner they met, the one who has spent his life reaching up, trying to better himself and give back to others.
Entering his final season at Michigan, there’s one more chance for Gardner to make his mark -- and he has done everything he can to create that opportunity.
“How he’s taken the offense, from that standpoint,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “Getting us in good plays. Being a little bit more assertive at the line of scrimmage, when you look at MIKE [linebacker] points and those things. Motivating guys, his demeanor has been really positive when things aren’t going well.”
Becoming a leader
Gardner’s nature is to reach out to others, which is why he’s the first to attend an elementary school function, speak to a kids group or finish his workout and leap into jumping jacks with hundreds of children in Oosterbaan Field House. But with his teammates, leadership didn’t come as naturally.
For his whole life, he was always more comfortable acting older.His brothers, David and Gavin, were a decade older, forcing Devin to learn patience hanging around them and their older friends.
After his first few years at Michigan, he lived off campus with fellow quarterback Denard Robinson, then when Robinson left two years ago, he lived with former high school teammate Cam Gordon, who left after last year. Gardner was in the highest profile spot at quarterback but always being guided by others.
Gardner is mature beyond his years, selflessly moving to receiver for 2012 when Michigan had a gaping hole at the position, and completing his undergrad degree in three years. But he never needed to be a leader.
“When you get to those last few years, you want to win games, you want to win championships, so you have to step out of your comfort zone,” older brother David Gardner said. “You have to rally guys together to get things done. So he just had to go through that natural learning curve, finding out himself.”With a nudge from his family, Devin Gardner squeezed a little tighter on the reins. The off-season training sessions where he previously went alone or with close friend Jeremy Gallon became group affairs, dragging receivers such as Devin Funchess and Freddy Canteen into the Oosterbaan Field House sand pits. He became more assertive with other players in spring practice. He hosted the offensive linemen, fullbacks and tight ends for a barbecue at his home.
“I just felt I should,” Gardner said. “My brother [Gavin] was like, ‘I can get some food for us’ -- I can't really cook so he did all the cooking -- and I felt like that would be good for the team just to get together and hang out, play some games.”
He laid back in 2013 after he was not voted a captain, following the protocol, allowing the seniors their chance. But after watching the 7-6 result, Gardner vowed he would not go down like that.
“I wasn’t much of a speak-up guy last year, but this year I try to speak when something needs to be said,” Gardner said. “I’m not a guy that wants to give speeches.”
Though he sees it as a subtle change, it’s dramatic for those around him.
“He’s always been mature, but he’s really developed as a leader,” said redshirt junior tailback Justice Hayes. “Devin is a very talkative guy and I think you guys know that. But I think as a team we’re buying into it more. When Devin tells us to do something, we do it. In the past, he would say things, but we wouldn’t have the success to want to listen to him sometimes.”
Under the spotlight
Like most college quarterbacks, Gardner lives in the spotlight. At dinner with his family, he’s interrupted by children wanting photos and adults wanting autographs. He handles it well, eternally smiling, understanding the responsibility.
But he’s also smart enough to know many of those same people made him the target for last season’s futility. Some of that was deserved, with his 11 interceptions and his burden of trying to do too much, taking repeated sacks the second half of the season.Some of it was excessive, ignoring the games he dominated -- the five touchdowns against Notre Dame, the 500 passing yards against Indiana and the 450 passing yards and near win against Ohio State and that he finished second in the conference in total offense. All the while he kept perspective, as he and his family barely broached the NFL topic during the season, despite repetitive agent interest and him already with his degree in hand.
Gardner realized that he had to improve, he just needed someone to show him how. That’s why new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was brought to Michigan, to maximize Gardner. It started with accountability off the field, which blossomed when Nussmeier disciplined him for an off-season transgression and Gardner understood, appreciating that “he demands perfection.”
Then it shifted to the field. Nussmeier’s credentials as a former NFL player and QB guru instantly got Gardner’s attention. Nussmeier understood Gardner wanted more responsibility, so he allowed him to audible at the line and read defenses in live action. Giving Gardner ownership -- a change from previous coordinator Al Borges who held more control -- boosted his confidence.
That’s the area Hoke wanted to see progress. He pinned last year’s inconsistency on Gardner’s hesitancy. Last season, if his line didn’t block, if his running backs didn’t run, if he had only two viable receivers to throw to, no one cared. He was the quarterback and the blame landed on his door. For all the barbecues, sand pits and shared leadership this off-season, Gardner won over just many teammates in those losses last season.
Hoke challenged him with a quarterback competition in the spring and fall and Gardner embraced the pressure.
“Being the oldest guy on the offense, everybody is looking to you to find a way,” Gardner said. “They’re going to look to me for assurance.”
For Michigan to thrive this season, the complete Devin Gardner will be essential.