Devin Gardner led Inkster to victory against all odds in Ohio two weeks ago. (The Detroit News)
Few who have watched Inkster quarterback Devin Gardner perform over the past year would argue with his current designation as one of the top five quarterbacks in the country. Every camp and combine he attended last summer had pundits rewriting the scouting report on a player that was previously described as one-dimensional.
His showing at the prestigious Elite 11 camp gave even his fiercest critics pause when discussing the limitations of his game -- not because he didn't have any -- but because he had far fewer than many initially thought. Even though some of the critiques may have been accurate and constructive, to Gardner, the nature of the criticism didn't matter. It all served the same purpose -- to stoke his motivational fire.
The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder used the doubts as additional motivation in his quest for improvement. The result of the countless hours spent honing his craft is a player that Scout.com anointed a five-star prospect, the No. 1 player in the state of Michigan, and the No. 4 signal-caller nationally. Most important to Gardner, however, is that he is a better player and leader for his Vikings.
"He had a great junior year and has simply built upon that," said Scout.com Midwest regional manager Allen Trieu. "He is considered one of the top handful of quarterbacks in the country and is firmly entrenched as a five-star prospect. As far as upside goes, I don't see many quarterbacks that have his potential. He has improved as a passer, but I think what is overlooked is that he has gotten faster and has broken longer runs. We've also seen several times where he has put this team on his shoulders and pulled out victories in tough situations."
Never was that last statement more obvious than in Inkster's well publicized comeback victory over Oho high school powerhouse Steubenville. Gardner and company traveled to the Buckeye State two weeks ago, hoping not to fall victim to a squad that had won 67 consecutive games. Adding to the game's significance was that Inkster's state playoff bid hung in the balance. Against a great team and a hostile crowd, the Vikings were almost knocked out for the count in the game's final minutes.
"(Late in the game) our running back busted a big run for like 80 yards, but then it got called back on a holding penalty," Gardner recalled. "Then they called an unsportsmanlike conduct on our other running back, so that tacked on (more penalty yardage). After that it seemed like the whole entire stadium just erupted. Then they called another penalty for delay of game. Then we got a false start penalty because our center couldn't hear me call the cadence. So all these penalties on top of each other, and I was inside the 5. We finally get the ball hiked and I drop back and I'm sitting there for a long time. Then I'm thinking, 'Something is not good -- I'm not supposed to be back here this long.' Then I get sacked for a safety. Then we kick them the ball, they score, and now they're up by one (29-28)."
With 1:19 left on the clock and 80 yards to go, Gardner took the field and answered the call like big-time players do.
"First I threw an out and we got out of bounds," the Michigan commitment remembered. "(Receiver) Jonathan Taylor got hurt and so he had to come out. Another receiver came in and we did just a regular ol' route. We didn't do nothing special, but they all jumped the out route and left the fly on the outside wide open. I just threw it to (Vorheese Zanders) in between the safety and corner and he made a big play. He made one guy miss, another guy fell down, and he scored."
Just another day at the office for a youngster that expects those kinds of performances. Slowly but surely, everyone around him has begun to expect them as well. In Gardner's mind that partially explains why his team was denied an invitation the Western Wayne Athletic Conference last season. He believes the teams that comprise that league set out to purposefully avoid Inkster, leaving it to fend for itself as an independent. So when he and his team saw Dearborn Edsel Ford as their first-round playoff draw, the game immediately took on additional meaning.
"We were going to get it done for Coach (Greg) Carter," Gardner said. "We were going to get it done for the city of Inkster."
The Vikings exacted their revenge in the form of a 51-19 blowout victory. Next up for Inkster is a meeting with Redford Thurston, a team that has a little something in common with the previous opponent.
Said Gardner, "I know they are (also) in that Downriver League that didn't want to let us in."
That's just more incentive for a team whose stated goal is winning a state title. Little can shake Gardner's focus from leading his squad to that feat -- not even persistent attention from college suitors like national champion Florida. The rumors of possible wavering on his commitment to Michigan could easily serve as a distraction, but Gardner won't allow it.
When asked if he plans to take visits to others schools, Gardner didn't mince words.
"No," he responded emphatically.
And his college destination?
"The University of Michigan," he said.
Such absolution is likely music to the ears of Michigan fans and coaches alike. The palpable buzz that Tate Forcier's performance generated may have caused fans to wonder about Gardner's future in the Maize and Blue, but the staff in Ann Arbor made sure that Gardner himself didn't share that sentiment.
"If I didn't see the opportunity (to compete right away) I never would have committed to Michigan," explained Gardner. "I talked to the coaches and they said it is wide open. Obviously I'm going to be behind, but if I can come in and get it done they're going to give me a chance."
If Gardner is able to graduate in December and enroll at Michigan in the winter like Forcier did last year, his chances of winning the job would increase significantly.
"We're still working on it." Gardner said regarding early graduation. "I don't even know if it is going to happen. It is definitely a possibility."
Whether it works out or not, the Michigan coaching staff appears intent on hammering home the "opportunity to compete" message for as long as it takes.
"I talk to (quarterbacks) Coach (Rod) Smith once a week and Coach Rich Rod every once in a while," Gardner said. "(U-M recruiting coordinator) Coach (Chris) Singletary talks to Coach Carter a lot too."
It's called recruiting until the bell.
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA