August 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Devin Gardner is key to Brady Hoke's fortunes at Michigan

Devin Gardner on the 2014 season
Devin Gardner on the 2014 season: Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner at media day.

Ann Arbor — Two guys took the most hits, as they usually do. It was the quarterback and the coach, and when they lost their protection, they spent the rest of the season going backward.

Now Devin Gardner has one more chance to define himself, and in the process, can go a long way toward defining Brady Hoke’s program. The two are linked, their identities at stake, the bridge between what Michigan was and what it wants to be again.

Hoke desperately needs a positive season, and Gardner is one who can help deliver it. Yes, Michigan has to fix its embarrassingly weak offensive line, but the talent is there. There’s depth and experience on defense. There’s sufficient motivation after a 7-6 disaster.

Michigan is still young in the trenches, but rebuilt enough to stop the excuses. Gardner brings something few teams possess — a fifth-year senior who can make plays with his arm, his legs and his head. By next season, the Wolverines should have more of the grind-it-out toughness they crave, but until that happens, Gardner can make a difference, and has to make a difference. He’s the most dangerous type of player — skilled and skewered, with a chance to alter perceptions.

It’s why Doug Nussmeier is here as the new offensive coordinator, to polish a unique quarterback, something Al Borges couldn’t consistently do. It’s why Michigan is all battered ego and simmering potential, capable of going anywhere from 7-5 to 10-2.

“I don’t think it’s any pressure, just an opportunity to prove people wrong, whoever doesn’t believe in us,” Gardner said Sunday at Michigan’s Media Day. “It’s perfectly fine with me — we enjoy being an afterthought. I hate to be blunt, but we really could care less what anybody else is saying.”

Keeping it simple

Gardner has navigated a tumultuous career, from Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense to Hoke’s power game, with a brief stop at the receiver position. At times, he can look brilliant, such as in the 42-41 loss to Ohio State, when he passed for 451 yards and played in the second half with a broken left foot. Or against Indiana, when he set school records with 503 yards passing and 584 total yards.

At times, he can look confused, so intent on making big plays, he ends up making mistakes. Gardner threw for 2,960 yards with 21 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions (zero in his final four games) and a punishing 34 sacks last season. Sophomore Shane Morris is pushing him but this is Gardner’s job, and there are signs of mutual trust in his relationship with Nussmeier.

“I can’t say enough about Devin’s buy-in, whatever we’ve asked him to do,” Nussmeier said. “He’s done an outstanding job. Devin obviously has great natural playmaking ability. The focus has been to let the system work for him, and then when things break down, to use his natural athletic ability.”

There’s a necessary urgency to this, something the Wolverines didn’t show last season. Borges was so determined — as was Hoke — to install the power game despite the soft offensive line, Gardner was in a constant state of scramble. You saw it in the clobbering by Michigan State — seven sacks, minus-48 yards rushing — although Gardner sometimes didn’t help by hanging onto the ball too long.

Now the offense is simplified. Gardner will have fewer designed runs. The running game will be more diverse, with a trio of backs — Drake Johnson, De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green — likely getting carries, instead of the predictable hammering with Fitz Toussaint. And when Gardner gets in trouble on a play, no one’s looking for a hero.

“One thing is realizing on fourth down, sometimes punting the ball is not a bad thing,” Hoke said. “Devin’s a guy who’s very athletic, very tough. The other part is, he’s got to learn that he doesn’t have to do it by himself.”

With senior linemen Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield gone, what’s lost in experience could be gained in other ways. As the Wolverines talked Sunday, I must’ve heard the words “chemistry” and “cohesion” 4,000 times. Trite, I know, but the way the line crumbled, you knew something more was amiss.

Building chemistry

The linemen have shaved their heads as a sign of unity, and even with underclassmen at every position, there’s blue-chip talent that could grow up quickly. Without denigrating past teams, the Wolverines talked about the need for stronger player leadership. There seemed to be a disconnect between Lewan and younger players, which can happen with a roster in flux.

“Everybody’s trying to build the team chemistry and brotherhood,” receiver Devin Funchess said. “It wasn’t there a lot, but that’s last year, this is this year. Now we’re going with the flow to make sure everybody’s comfortable with each other.”

That starts with the quarterback, whether it’s his personality or not. If Gardner felt detached last season — the line didn’t exactly appear willing to fight to the end for him — he’s working to tie it all together. Earlier in the summer, Gardner hosted a barbecue for his offensive teammates to push the sense of cohesion.

“We’re encouraging each other more now,” he said. “You see guys fiercely competing and also cheering each other on. That’s something I don’t know for sure we had last year. That might have been a problem.”

Gardner doesn’t expand on it, so we can read into it whatever we wish. When a team goes 7-6, there are going to be fractures, and the quarterback usually suffers the most.

With the pounding he took, Gardner showed his toughness, no doubt. Now he’s showing his maturity, refusing to blame anyone for the struggles.

“Everybody puts it on the o-line, which is unjust,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the backs, sometimes maybe receivers didn’t get open, sometimes I held the ball too long. The linemen have worked hard all summer and it’s very encouraging, They’ve heard a lot of the doubt, and they feel it’s on them. I try to make sure there’s no pressure on them. They’re gonna perform.”

It’s been a career of dramatic swings for Gardner, and Hoke too. If the quarterback trusts his skill and the system — and the blockers block — the final swing could be one worth remembering.

Devin Gardner had some rough spots last season, some of them his fault, some not. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
More Bob Wojnowski