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Unsung Heroes of 2013: Devin Gardner

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The embattled leader of an embattled Michigan season that saw rumors of coaching changes? Devin Gardner had one of the grittiest performances in 2013 through the midst of it all.

Gregory Shamus

It's important to remember that every football play involves 22 people making a few quick decisions and moves that have an impact on how the play unfolds. Quarterbacks make decisions and moves that tend to impact a play morethan any of the other 21 players, so we tend to describe what they do as the make-or-break factors of football games. We do love our simplified narratives in explaining this complex world.

Consequently, what Devin Gardner has done this year in the midst of a 7-5 season (3-5 in B1G play) at Michigan is generally not regarded as being particularly impressive.

Brady Hoke got more than a few eyebrows raised when he suggested that Johnny Manziel would be QB2 on the Michigan depth chart and was likely doing little more than offering support for his signal caller. However, the importance of Gardner in Michigan's seven wins cannot be overstated.

While Hoke and Al Borges attempted to make the great leap forward and fully initiate Michigan's new "Power-coast" offense in 2013, Gardner quickly became the lynchpin to the entire operation. As the season progressed, the Wolverine staff had to scramble to find ways to re-start the offense after the rival Spartans brought it to a grinding halt and then threw it 48 yards backwards. Of course, Gardner was already scrambling every other play in order to to make the system work.

An understanding of exactly what Gardner accomplished in 2013 has to begin with an understanding of the pressure he faced all season.

With Rich Rodriguez and Denard Robinson, the Wolverines were a spread-option football team. Because of Robinson's skill set, Hoke and co. were never able to fully integrate that intended approach for the future. Eventually Gardner was moved over from WR and demonstrated some of the passing acumen necessary to run Borges' West Coast passing offense.

By all accounts, Gardner had a strong offseason, and the staff moved to fully install the future offense. But due to the limitations of the Wolverines' young personnel, Michigan fans didn't actually see the offense as it's intended to be operated until "the game" against Ohio State.

The biggest problem for the Wolverines was on the offensive line, which saw different lineups all year until the staff settled on a formula that worked against the Buckeyes. The final lineup included underclassmen at all three interior OL positions, bookended by the senior tackle tandem of Michael Schofield and Taylor Lewan. The constant turmoil was reflected in the horrendous play of the Wolverine line in both the run and pass game.

The next time you hear about how important and essential a dominant left tackle is to an offense, consider that Michigan's left tackle Taylor Lewan will be an All-American despite playing on a line that gave up 34 sacks, nearly three per game.

Here, you see one of many possible examples of this phenomenon with the Michigan offense. Taylor Lewan completely stonewalls his man while one of Pat Narduzzi's zone pressures annihilates the right side of the line.

Gardner was sacked seven times against the Spartans for minus-49 yards.

The demands of the Al Borges passing game are not overly simple for his quarterbacks and require precise timing, accuracy, and the ability to read defenses. Attempting to fulfill the demands of that offense under the kind of pressure Gardner faced all season is a monumental task.

This spacing concept is an example of the kind of throws West Coast teams use to control the ball and move the chains:

The ball is thrown into a tight window between the coverage of the safety and the linebacker. The timing and accuracy are essential, as is the trust between the receiver and the QB.

In this instance, he hits TE Jake Butt on a similar concept over the middle, releasing the ball as the receiver makes his move to get open.

Much more impressive are his timed routes thrown outside of the hash marks.

His accuracy on this rollout pass to Gallon makes the throw nearly un-defendable for the Irish and was a third-down and red zone weapon all year for the Wolverines.

Gardner found Gallon often enough to accumulate 1,284 receiving yards for the 5'8 target. For the season, Gardner threw for 2,960 yards at 8.3 yards per pass. He threw 11 total interceptions against 21 touchdown passes, but those mistakes are easily forgiven when considered in the context of Gardner running for his life every other snap.

There is good evidence to suggest that the duress Gardner played under took its toll within games. His QB passer ratings in the first and third quarters were 168.0 and 157.2, respectively, while he managed only 127.9 and 115.9 in quarters two and four.

If the physical pounding of being hit after throws or on sacks wasn't enough to beat down the Detroit native, Gardner also bore the burden of carrying the Michigan run game.

In Michigan's discouraging overtime defeat at Penn State, feature back Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 27 yards on 27 carries while Gardner toted the rock 24 times for 121.

Until their swan song against Ohio State, the Wolverines were totally unable to run the ball without heavily involving Gardner in their schemes or rushing totals. He finished the year listed at 165 carries for 483 yards but if you remove the sacks you end up with a season of 131 intentional carries for 748 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Hoke managed to satisfy his desire to have a Power-O based offense in part through utilizing Gardner in the ubiquitous "Power-Read" concept.

The problem with "Power-Read" is that the QB becomes the inside runner and has to take the hits that come with cutting against the grain and being tackled by linebackers and safeties.

The concept was initially designed with the defensive "block down, step down" rules in place, meaning that an unblocked defensive lineman will usually step inside and spill plays to the outside against the option. Against that defensive response, the QB will only keep the ball and fire up the middle in the event that the unblocked defender dives after the RB and abandons the interior gap.

If defenses simply adjust their response to funnel the ball inside, then an offense has to consider whether they actually want to feature their QB as an inside runner in their offense on a regular basis.

Michigan had little choice, as they couldn't get their run game going between the tackles without the advantage of leaving a defender unblocked to be read by Gardner. Against Michigan State and Nebraska, when Gardner was stuffed, Michigan could mount absolutely no ground game at all and finished with dismal games.

It's astounding that Gardner survived the pounding he took over the course of the season and managed to start and finish each of Michigan's games.

2013 proved to be a year of transition for Michigan. The early victory against Notre Dame pointed hinted at a breakthrough year for the Wolverines, but instead it was a bridge, and it was a bridge held up on the shoulders of Devin Gardner.

There were times when Gardner held up the passageway for Michigan to cross over into the world of the Power-Coast offense:

And there were times when he found himself in a heap of trouble and reacted ... poorly.

Devin Gardner's 11 interceptions and hopeless series of performances from the Michigan State to Ohio State games will easily disqualify him from any major national attention or awards. However, in this "unsung heroes" series we can at least note the following:

He helped bridge the gap between RichRod spread and Al Borges pro-style offense and occasionally looked brilliant in concepts from either system.

He was asked to carry a heavy load making reads and timed throws in the passing game while breathing life into the run game. If he faltered in either, the Michigan offense could become utterly stagnant.

He took these tasks on while constantly under pressure; he took three sacks per game on average and also took hits navigating inside running lanes in the Wolverines' run game. He played in every game and shouldered that burden every Saturday.

Gardner's 2013 season was a remarkable accomplishment, completed with a perfectly symbolic conclusion. Gardner is asked to complete a two-point conversion pass to bring down undefeated Ohio State because his ankle had been injured and precluded a run attempt. He drops back and throws an interception after making a hasty read and attempting to hit a quick window.

Sometimes heroes fail, but it'll be interesting to see what Gardner gets up to next year with Hoke's younger recruiting classes slowly working their way to the top of the depth chart. In 2014 people might be singing Gardner's praises as the leader of a physically dominant Michigan team. In the meantime, his efforts have been duly noted here.