November 14, 2012 at 7:00 pm

John Niyo

Gardner is Michigan's quarterback of the future - and maybe the present, as well

Devin Gardner has led Michigan to two victories during Denard Robinson’s absence. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)

Ann Arbor There was a time, shortly after college, when I rented my first apartment and, along with a couple roommates, discovered we'd struck gold.

Free cable! The local provider failed to shut it off after the last tenant moved out, and for months nobody seemed the wiser. No premium channels, only one connection worked — but who were we to complain? It was better than the alternative, right?

I've always felt that way about Michigan's coaching staff and Denard Robinson. He's not the quarterback they would have recruited, but who were they to complain? He sure beat the alternative, along with most of the defenses on the Wolverines schedule, often in record-setting fashion. And as free entertainment goes, it doesn't get much better than Robinson in the open field.

"I can honestly say that he's the most electric player that I've ever coached," offensive coordinator Al Borges said Tuesday. "And a joy to coach, I might add."

A joy to watch, too, which is why he'll be rightly hailed as his college career winds to a close this week and next, and then again next month as the Wolverines prepare for another New Year's Day bowl.

But chances are, we've seen the last of Robinson as Michigan's starting quarterback. The ulnar nerve injury that has sidelined him since the first half of an Oct. 27 loss at Nebraska takes weeks to heal, if not months, or surgery. And coach Brady Hoke's cat-and-mouse games with the media notwithstanding, that reality — along with Robinson's NFL prospects — figures to leave the senior stuck in this new dual-threat role: as an extra coach and cheerleader on the sideline while Devin Gardner succeeds him under center.

"Every so often Coach Denard will get on the phones with me and suggest something," Borges said, chuckling. "He's been awesome. And I think Devin would tell you that. It's driving him crazy not to be able to play, and I think he'd tell you that. But he is into the game as much as he would be if he was playing, from a mental perspective, anyway."

Funny like clown?

There are different ways to view all this, of course.

Robinson certainly has earned the right to finish what he started here, if he's able. And make no mistake, if not for him, the transition for Hoke & Co. the last two years would've been quite a bit more like the last one in Ann Arbor than many people want to admit.

But just the same, it's hard not to look at this and see the glass half full. Because even as Michigan chases a Big Ten title to the finish, it is getting a head start on the future with Gardner taking the reins and taking charge, as the junior did in last weekend's 38-31 overtime victory over Northwestern.

"I mean, I knew my time would come eventually, whether it was this year or next year," said Gardner, who passed for 286 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 47 yards and another score. "It just happened to come a little earlier than expected."

Borges, for his part, played an impromptu game of word association with the media Tuesday.

Denard Robinson?

"Fast," Borges replied. "That's the first word that comes into my mind."

Devin Gardner?

"Funny," Borges said. "He's a pretty funny guy."

Funny thing is, that might've been part of the problem if Robinson had bolted when Rich Rodriguez was fired and Gardner had been thrust into this starting role too fast. Described good-naturedly by senior linebacker Kenny Demens as "a silly person, a clown," Gardner probably wasn't ready as a sophomore to be the kind of leader a team needs.

But you hear him talk after the victory over Northwestern — "This is Denard's team, and it's always going to be Denard's team until he's gone," Gardner said — and you get the sense he's growing into one.

"As you gain success, those things tend to come," Borges said. "And I say they tend to come because just because you're successful doesn't make you a leader. Some guys grasp that, some don't. He is beginning to evolve into a better leader all the time. But it's hard to lead until you earn the respect of your teammates, and he's in the process, I think, of doing that. Still, it's a work in progress."

The only option

So is Borges' offense, as everyone knows. And it's no secret Gardner's skill set is a better fit than Robinson's for what that'll eventually be. Saturday was just another glimpse, as the Wolverines largely ditched the shotgun and the spread and passed the ball more aggressively — and more accurately — downfield.

Borges said Gardner "missed a couple reads" and made a few passes "that shouldn't have been thrown." But he also raved about the read and throw he made on a corner route to Roy Roundtree in overtime, and a run checkdown that led to a first-half touchdown, among other decisions.

Deciding when to pass and when to run is part of what Borges calls "a delicate balance" for a quarterback.

"And I think that's an instinctive thing," he said. "You can coach some of that, but some guys just got it."

Gardner's got it. He turned a half-dozen pass plays into gains with his scrambling ability, something Robinson — inexplicably — seems reluctant to do. And something that's absolutely necessary given the current Michigan offensive line.

But again, this really isn't about who's a better option right now because Gardner —no longer moonlighting as a receiver — is the only option. It's not even about trying to get Borges to admit he has a preference, because he's no more likely to do that than Hoke is to give you an expansive answer about an injury.

"Nope. Nope. Nope," Borges said when asked to do just that. "We just go to a different plan. There's no more comfort one way or another. As long as the ball's moving, I'm comfortable."

But as painful as it is to watch Robinson sit — "It's really hard because Denard absolutely loves this program," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said — there is some comfort in this: The ball's moving forward, and so is the program.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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