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Dual-threat Gardner steps in at quarterback

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, September 4, 2013

As the starting quarterback at Michigan, Denard Robinson terrorized the Irish defense, capturing two wins in three attempts. Shoelace has graduated, but No. 14 Notre Dame will have to try to keep another Wolverines quarterback tied up Saturday in the Big House. 

Senior quarterback Devin Gardner has completed the shift from receiver to signal caller, and he brought a dynamic set of skills with him. 

“He reminds me [former NFL quarterback] Randall Cunningham back there,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He can throw it, he’s tall, he’s athletic, runs the ball very well.”

Robinson, who garnered buzz as a Heisman contender throughout his career, put up gaudy stats in his first two career starts against the Irish – both Michigan victories. In 2010 and 2011, Robinson totaled 366 yards rushing and 582 yards through the air while accounting for eight touchdowns. 

However, Robinson also threw three interceptions in 2011 before adding four more in 2012 while accumulating only 228 total yards in Michigan’s 13-6 loss in Notre Dame Stadium. Robinson possessed skills Gardner can’t duplicate, Kelly said, although he acknowledged Gardner is more of a threat with his arm than his predecessor was.

“Well, certainly from a running standpoint, I don’t know that we’ve ever played a guy like Robinson, I mean, his just electric speed that he could immediately go 80 yards,” he said. 

“Having said that, you know, throwing the football, Gardner throws the football with much more accuracy. He pushes the ball down the field very easily. And he certainly scrambles very well, keeps his eyes downfield and is not afraid to run.”

Although he was not the starting quarterback, Gardner did play a minor role in last year’s meeting with Notre Dame, as he compiled 40 yards on three catches as a receiver. The Detroit native started eight games out wide for the Wolverines in 2012, totaling 266 yards on 16 catches before supplanting Robinson as the starting quarterback for the final five contests of the season. Gardner scored at least two touchdowns in each of his starts while earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors twice. The converted receiver earned three consecutive wins before losing to Ohio State in Columbus and to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. At the time, the Buckeyes and Gamecocks held rankings of fourth and 11th, respectively. 

“Gardner, he’s a pretty good passer and very mobile,” Irish junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt said. “He can get out of the pocket and throw the ball very far, so we have to make sure we keep everything right and make sure everything goes good with him.”

In his first action of 2013, Gardner got the No. 17 Wolverines underway last week with a 59-9 romping over Central Michigan, rushing for 52 yards on seven attempts and throwing for 162 yards on 10-for-15 passing. It was not, however, an elite season debut for the quarterback, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said, as Gardner also threw two interceptions in the opener.

“I think sometimes guys who have that kind of ability, sometimes it’s … a blessing and a curse,” Hoke said. “And he can make a lot of plays and as long as he keeps learning … punting the ball on fourth down is not a bad decision.” 

The matchup with the Irish provides a very public stage on which Gardner can prove he belongs as a big-time quarterback, an opportunity not lost on the senior. 

“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s a big game on the biggest stage in college football … It’s what every quarterback dreams of – being on the big stage and being able to perform like this.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at [email protected]