Devin Gardner: 'Last year was my first year starting, and it was rough, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of adversity.' (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor -- Devin Gardner doesn’t mention it as an excuse but simply as a reminder.
Last season was, after all, his first as a starting college quarterback. And Michigan did go 7-6, and he did get battered by sacks, and he did have a rough first half of the season with turnovers, and he did suffer an injury to his left foot in the Ohio State game but managed to tough it out and nearly win that one.
All in his first season as a full-time starter at Michigan.
He said his confidence never waned, but this is second year as the starter, and now he’s working with new offensive coordinator / quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier. Gardner learned plenty from last year, and he’s approaching his final season with more competition in practice from backups Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and freshman Wilton Speight, and he is determined to practice and play consistently as though his job is on the line.
“I’m way more comfortable,” Gardner said. “Last year was my first year starting, and it was rough, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of adversity. A lot of adversity I fought through, and I feel like I did a really good job of never giving up, never giving up on myself and my teammates. I feel my teammates recognized that, and my coaches recognized that, and I feel like that will help me.”
Gardner spent the bulk of his time this offseason working on fundamentals.
“Sometimes I found myself just trying to survive last year -- just trying to survive and get through games and do the best I can without focusing on my fundamentals,” Gardner said. “Coach Nuss has put a lot of stress on me in practice to make sure I continue to work on my fundamentals and be consistent with those, so when the game comes I won’t have to try to survive. I will try to finish games the right way.”
Nussmeier, who arrived at Michigan from Alabama, where he was offensive coordinator / quarterback coach, replaced Al Borges in early January.
His work from the get-go with Gardner was multi-faceted, but he wanted him to grasp the fact that while he is a tremendous athlete with big-play ability, he has to first let the system work for him. And when there’s a breakdown in that system, that’s when he has to rely on his athleticism and try to make something happen.
“I can’t say enough about Devin’s buy-in what we’ve asked him to do,” Nussmeier said. “He’s gotten better each and every day, (and) I’m really pleased with his progress.
“Devin’s an extremely confident guy, and he should be with his skill set. The biggest thing was to get Devin focused on what we want to accomplish with the offense and understanding why we’re making the calls we make.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Gardner has adapted well to what Nussmeier is trying to achieve. Hoke praised Gardner for processing the good and the bad from his overall performance last season.
“He’s done a nice job of seeing how he can change and work to be better,” Hoke said.
Nussmeier played quarterback in college, and that has made the communication easier with Gardner. Nussmeier is a high-intensity, highly-demanding coach, and because he’s been there, done that, the quarterbacks are listening intently.
“When you play the position, the small things that you see when you’re a quarterback or the things you’re dealing with off the field, it’s easier for him to relate to me,” Gardner said.
They are speaking the same language, and Gardner is just slightly worried, however, that Nussmeier is rubbing off a bit too much.
Gardner spent some time at the Manning Passing Academy this summer working with young quarterbacks, and he caught himself sounding like someone else.
“I even started coaching like him,” Gardner said, laughing. “I was talking real fast and expecting them to know what I was saying, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m turning into coach Nuss.’”
Gardner said he finally felt like his foot injury, which held him out of the bowl game, was completely healed by summer workouts. He was able to run as fast as he had before the injury. Missing the bowl game gave him perspective and had him considering what life could be like without football.
And while Hoke didn’t think Gardner could be back ready to go by the start of spring practice, he was there on the first day competing.
He has a sense of urgency. This is his last season, he wants to be a strong leader, and he credits Nussmeier for making him more accountable as an adult off the field. Two of Gardner’s goals for this season are to be more consistent and to come to practice every day fighting for his job.
Gardner learned plenty about himself throughout last season -- especially his toughness -- and now, with Nussmeier, he’s learning even more.
“I’m pretty confident and coach Nuss has done a great job,” Gardner said. “He’s made me confident in my skills and he’s made me confident in him.”