September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Devin Gardner ready to tackle pressure of leading Michigan offense

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner runs the ball around Appalachian State linebacker Eric Boggs in the third quarter Saturday. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Ann Arbor — Odd as it sounds, Devin Gardner insists it’s true.

One of the best moments for Michigan’s senior quarterback in Saturday’s season-opening romp over Appalachian State came on the Wolverines’ second play from scrimmage. It was the first of just a handful of carries for Gardner — a broken play in the backfield forced him to scramble — and it ended with a personal-foul penalty on the defense as Gardner was ripped to the ground along the Michigan sideline.

“But I just was excited to get a chance to finally get tackled,” Gardner said. “I never thought I would ever say that.”

Certainly not after enduring the punishment he took last season, one that left him battered and bruised, both physically and emotionally.

Gardner won’t admit it now, but Michigan’s offense might’ve been as painful to lead as it was to watch last fall. He was sacked 34 times officially in 2013, tackled a couple hundred more.

Yet as he noted Monday, it’d been 10 months — since that 42-41 loss to Ohio State he gutted out with a bum ankle — since he’d really taken a good hit.

“So I didn’t know how I would respond,” he said. “I didn’t know how it would feel.”

And how did it feel?

“It felt great,” Gardner said, smiling as he did.

Which is good, I suppose. Because there’s no guarantee he won’t take more than his fair share of lumps again before he’s done this season, playing behind an inexperienced offensive line that’ll get its first real test this week on the road at Notre Dame.

This rivalry game was Gardner’s coming-out party a year ago, an electric peformance under the lights — 376 yards of total offense and five touchdowns — that sparked an impromptu “Chicken Dance” and some premature Heisman Trophy talk.

But it was also the crest of the wave for Gardner and the Wolverines. Whatever criticism he heard after that careless fourth-quarter interception he tossed in the win over the Irish was nothing compared to what followed turnover-plagued performances against Akron and Connecticut or the overtime loss at Penn State.

And what started as a “funk” — as head coach Brady Hoke called it following the UConn escape — became a full-fledged crisis by early November, when Gardner was getting punished by Michigan State’s defense and pilloried by some of his own fans.

Opening up

For Greg Harden, Michigan’s associate athletic director and resident sports psychologist, it reminded him of the early struggles of another UM quarterback, John Navarre, who found himself similarly besieged in his first full season as a starter in 2001.

“That was the first quarterback I’d ever heard booed at Michigan — it broke my heart,” Harden said.

But to this day, Harden also calls Navarre “my hero” and the “toughest quarterback I ever met.”

“He took a beating,” he said. “And his response to it? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

So as he counseled Gardner, he suggested he should start there. And then he encouraged Gardner to toughen up by opening up, in a way.

“He was just so hard on himself,” said Harden, who has helped countless athletes cope with the pressures of success and failure over the years. “And with every little thing that happened, he put more pressure on himself, (thinking) he was responsible.

“I think he’s getting much better at sharing that weight now. And he’s allowing his relationships and everyone else’s belief in him to be the solid foundation he needs.”

Gardner, for his part, says he’s “way more comfortable” this fall. Hoke says he’s “100 times better” as a leader.

“And this year, I’m confident you will see him totally engaged,” Harden adds. “That’s what he has really been working hard at doing.”

Digging Doug

It goes beyond his work on the practice field, obviously. Much was made of Gardner hosting a cookout for his teammates this summer, another sign of the chemistry that was lacking last season. All those informal throwing sessions with No. 1 target Devin Funchess sure seemed worth the effort in the opener, too. And when I asked Harden if he saw any other major changes in Gardner, he smiled and starting repeating one name, over and over: “Nussmeier, Nussmeier, Nussmeier …”

Doug Nussmeier, Michigan’s new offensive coordinator, is “the best thing that could’ve happened to him,” Harden said. “They’re a perfect fit.”

Perfection’s always a bit of a reach. But already you can see — and hear — the fit, with Gardner raving about the new scheme and Nussmeier coaching from the sideline — “You can look ’em right in the eyes and get a feel for where they’re at from a mental standpoint,” he explained — and not at all shy about getting in Gardner’s face.

When he did it in the third quarter Saturday, screaming at Gardner about a run-check he’d made on the previous touchdown drive, the quarterback was caught off guard.

“I was like, ‘What, did I do it wrong?’ ” Gardner said.

Nope. Turns out his coach was elated with the call, and just wanted to let him know.

But the criticism is coming — Gardner understands that now — and he’d best be ready when it does.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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