Friday, March 23, 2012

Mailbag: Should Devin Gardner play wide receiver?

Should Devin Gardner play wide receiver or be the backup quarterback?
Okay, this wasn't really a mailbag question.  It was asked by Lankownia in the comments section.  Also, it's the hip topic of spring practice (so far).  Here are my thoughts.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, play him at wide receiver.  Michigan is hurting - badly - at the wide receiver position.  Besides the 2008 squad (Greg Mathews, Laterryal Savoy, Darryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms, Toney Clemons, etc.), I think this is Michigan's worst receiver unit in years and years and years.  Each of the returning receivers has at least one major flaw:

  • Jeremy Jackson: slow
  • Jeremy Gallon: short
  • Drew Dileo: short
  • Jerald Robinson: maturity issues
  • Roy Roundtree: chemistry issues
  • Darryl Stonum: drunk
Roundtree has the best chance of being the number one guy because he's been Michigan's leading receiver before, but he wasn't often targeted last season, he's had some issues with his hands over the past 1.5 seasons, and there was a fair bit of confusion between him and Denard last season when Roundtree went one way and the ball went sailing elsewhere.  Beyond that, all of these guys are role type players who have limited ceilings in this offense.  Gallon has some big play ability, but it seemed that Al Borges's only way of getting him the ball last season was to run a throwback screen (and to Jedi Mind Trick the Notre Dame Fighting Irish into completely forgetting he was on the football field).  Robinson is a jump ball guy who has receiving ability similar to Junior Hemingway's, without so much talent when it comes to running after the catch.

So aside from Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint, this isn't a scary offense.

Now throw a 6'4", 205 lb. guy with long arms and good leaping ability into the mix.  Instantly, he's the tallest receiver on the roster.  He's probably the second fastest receiver on the roster.  He can jump.  He can catch.  He's bright.  Can he block?  I don't know.  Other than that, all the tools seem to be there.

The catch is that if Gardner plays receiver, who's being groomed to be the quarterback in 2013?  And who enters the game for Denard when he inevitably dings up a shoulder or a hip or a knee?  While Gardner's playing wideout, he's not taking snaps.  Meanwhile, third-string quarterback Russell Bellomy is getting some looks and then you have to look at 2013 freshman Shane Morris, a highly touted but [obviously] young QB.  Depth will once again be thin in 2013, even if Gardner plays quarterback.  Those are problems to worry about in the future, though.  Right now, assuming the electric Robinson can stay healthy, you need to get the best eleven on the field.  Gardner is one of the best eleven athletes on the offensive unit.  It doesn't do anyone much good to leave a kid like that wasting his time on the bench for three years.

I do have confidence in the futures of both incoming freshmen, Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh.  But you can't count on them to be ready immediately.  You have to plan to play the guys who are already on the squad, and I don't think you can convincingly guarantee me that every guy in the above bulleted list is a better receiving prospect than Devin Gardner.

On a side note, this discussion  is why you recruit at least one quarterback every year.  I insisted for the entirety of the 2012 recruiting cycle that Michigan should - and would - get a quarterback to sign with them in February.  It had happened for 14 years in a row and wouldn't stop.  Well, I was wrong.  The Wolverines got a commitment from Morris for 2013 and ignored the position for 2012.  Now they're flirting with the idea of putting the #2 quarterback at receiver and being stuck with Bellomy as the sole backup devoted to the quarterback position.  If the doomsday scenario occurs in which both Robinson and  Gardner get hurt, the Wolverines will be left with Bellomy and ___________ at quarterback.  That scenario is unlikely to actually occur, but if Michigan had an incoming freshman quarterback, the Gardner-to-receiver thing would be a no-brainer.  Instead, it has fans - and the coaches, it seems - unsure of how to use Gardner.


  1. I'm pretty confident we see Devin line up at WR against Alabama for at least a few snaps. It might be worth it just for the fact that a quick out to Gardner on the flank has reverse, double reverse, and lateral "he can still pass it" trick play potential.

    If he's got the game to catch a lot of balls, I say he should be lined up at WR as often as possible. That said, I'm not convinced that it will ever turn into much more than the occasional trick play and maybe a goal to go situations. After all, they lined Denard up at WR a bunch, and even I could see the jet sweep coming after awhile.

    I hope I'm wrong.

  2. If Denard and Gardner are both down to Bellomy they're screwed even if they have a 4th QB. At that point Michigan should just run 90% of the time (and I think they would). Also, Dileo seems like a guy who could be the #4 QB if needed.

    While I love the Gardner to WR role I think you're downplaying the WRs a bit. Yes, this indeed might be a very weak WRs corp but we have 3 good WR options and still play in a system where they should be 1 on 1 most of the time.

    Michigan has 3 good WRs. That means on any play the defense cannot target one specific WR. All 3 can run routes, have good speed and have a history with Denard. Roundtree has regressed but he's still good at finding space. He's shown he's not a #1 WR but he is a good complementary WR. Dileo showed his value late last year against OSU. He seems like he has great hands and good speed. I think he'll really push Roundtree to become Denard's #2 guy and dominate the medium to short routes. Gallon seems like he can become a great WR. Yes he's very short. Clearly being tall is a benefit to WRs but it's not like the NFL isn't littered with good to great short WRs. He's not blazing fast but he seems very agile and smoother meaning he can separate from most Big Ten CBs.

    Add in the options out of the backfield in Hayes and Smith and Michigan will have plenty of good options to throw to when they need/want to throw the ball. No they don't have their traditional 6'3 #1 guy (maybe Gardner?) but they should still be good.

    I also wouldn't be surprised to see Jackson, Robinson, or Miller step up and fill a speciality role (maybe endzone target).

    1. Roundtree's "regression" may well have a lot more to do with his being in the slot last years and Denard's passing choices. I think it is quite likely that with his position change and Denard's maturation as QB in Borges's system, we'll see Roundtree reemerge as a receiver.

    2. I hope Roundtree re-emerges, but he had problems with drops, ran some wrong routes, etc. And he didn't play in the slot last year - he was the split end. Hemingway played in the slot in most three-wide sets.

  3. Can you do a piece of what a package would like like with Bellomy at QB, and both Devin and Denard in the game all at the same time?

  4. What are the chances of Darboh or Chesson making a difference this year? Do true freshman WRs ever start at Michigan and make a difference? Or do they get 8 catches and blow a redshirt?

    Is there any chance Gardner blows up at WR and stays at WR next year (meaning Bellomy and Morris compete for the starter job)? If that does happen (or even if there is a chance) do you think Michigan recruits a 2nd QB (maybe a local 3 star like Strock, Tupa, or Bossory)?

    1. Mario Manningham is about the most successful true freshman wide receiver I can think of at Michigan. He had 27 receptions for 442 yards and 6 touchdowns. Typically, only the most elite wide receivers make a huge impact as freshmen. Others (like Hemingway, Stonum, Clemons, Stokes, Jackson, etc.) typically make a few catches and would probably be better off redshirting.

      I think it's possible that Gardner stays at WR in 2013 if he blows up. He hasn't completely lit the world on fire at quarterback, although I still think he has potential there. But Michigan definitely needs another QB in the class of 2013 if they're going to keep Gardner at wideout. They're playing with fire when they go 2- or 3-deep at quarterback...but then go 4-deep at linebacker.

  5. It would provide a gazillion opportunities to create matchup havoc all over the field.

    How would you like to be a DC and not know where Denard or Devon Gardiner is even going to line up on a given play.

    Move Denard to flanker on 2 and 6, put him in motion and run jet sweep.

    Can you imagine the panic and overreaction to get out there and cover that puppy after about the second 8 to 80 yard gain .... oopssies fake pitch, here comes the 6'5" mobile quarterback the other way, one on one, and 4 yards downfield on your typically lousy tackling CB.

    Line up with Denard in the shotgun, run outside spread play except send Devon skinny post, the safety takes that one fatal step forward and .... Oh No!!!!!

    He'll be making Will Hagerup faces.

    This excites me, the possibilities are endless.

    1. There is a big flaw in that theory. There were quite a few plays last year (especially in the first half of the season) with both Denard and Gardner on the field, and for the most part they did not have the magical results you are talking about. They did not use those formations very much in the big games at the end of the season, because the experiment had not been a great success. The only novelty is putting in Gardner as a conventional WR; that is the one thing they did not try last year. The Denard jet sweep was not especially effective against good defenses. (Against bad defenses, you could just run the base offense, so why fool around with gadget plays?)

      For Denard to be effective against good defenses, they need to be in doubt as to whether he is going to run, throw, or pitch. When you put him out there as a flanker, you lose that; and if the play doesn't go to him, he is not a great blocker. This is one of the many reasons why Denard to RB or WR has never been a very good idea, despite many fans clamoring for it.

    2. I agree that it wasn't all that effective last year.

      My opinion is that this had as much to do with the fact that it was a mid season tinker rather than a serious part of the game plan.

      Unless I missed it, there was no serious discussion about both guys out there at the same time last spring which I think is to be expected as Borges was busy putting in the base offense with unfamiliar personnel.

      I can think of 15 ideas I'd try with these two guys out there, and I'm an armchair OC.

      Borges has inspired a lot of confidence in me, I think he can really hurt people with this thing if ......... Gardner can play.

  6. Devin would be a huge target. I think it makes total sense. A guy with his speed, size, hands, smarts, and the ability for trickeration (impromptu sneaky QB play)...for sure. I am seeing secondaries having issues covering him.

  7. Agree 100%. It killed me that UM did not bring in a QB in the 2012. I heard that Borges was doing a lot of prospect evaluations, but I guess they did not come across a guy they wanted in the last couple months of the cycle.

    Gardner's future is at WR. UM fans vastly overrate him as a QB because of his recruiting ranking. But the fact of the matter is that he does not throw a particularly good ball, he does not have the mental knack, and he is nowhere near quick enough to rely on his legs a la Denard.

    If Shane enrolls early (not sure if this is planned?), I fully expect either he or Bellomy to start at QB in 2013 ahead of Gardner. Giving DG a shot to help this week WR corp makes tons of sense. It's in his best interest too because he has a shot to be an NFL WR.

    1. I don't think you can say that DG isn't going to be a solid QB. He hasn't played very many meaningful snaps, many were just 1 or two plays at a time, and he was only a true sophomore last season. While some fans over rate because of recruiting classes, others are too quick to dismiss a player because he hasn't contributed heavily by his sophomore season.

    2. I am not dismissing him because he has not played much. I just do not believe he will be a quality starter at UM based on what I have seen and heard. This is not a quick assessment either - this is Gardner's third spring and his throwing motion still looks terrible and he does not have the other skills to overcome a substandard arm, in my opinion. I have heard from multiple sources that Bellomy is at least as good as Gardner, and that's a 3* freshman fresh off the scout team. If Shane is near as good as Henne was as a freshman (and I think he will be), he will be better than Gardner from Day 1. On the other hand, I think Gardner could potentially develop into the #1 WR on the team as early as this season.

  8. I think you are confusing two completely different issues. The first is the atrocious depth at WR, and the second is the decision NOT to take a QB in 2012.

    Had Michigan taken a QB in 2012, he would almost surely have been 4th-string (unless Russell Bellomy is REALLY bad, and that is not what we are hearing). The disaster scenario, where all of the first three get injured, is pretty rare; when was the last time a team was reduced to playing its 4th guy (not counting garbage time)? If it comes to that, the season is toast, no matter what.

    So if Michigan had taken a QB in 2012, he would have been no help on the field. Next season, Michigan loses Denard Robinson, but gains Shane Morris. Most likely our hypothetical 2012 QB would STILL be 4th string. That is the reason why the coaches did not take a QB in 2012. The guys who had any real shot at being better than 4th string (e.g., Gunner Kiel) turned them down, and they saw no real need for another guy who will be holding a clipboard for four or five years.

    The WR situation is something totally different. Here, I think the coaches are damned if they do, and damned if they don't. I could well imagine that Devin Gardner is the second-best QB and ALSO the best WR. This means that no matter what he focuses on, an important position will be neglected. I think there is a fairly good chance that, at some point in the season, a #2 QB will be needed with the outcome of a game in doubt. If DG is a full-time WR, then when (not if) Denard goes down, either you will be getting an unprepared DG or a guy who, until recently, most people assumed would be 3rd string.

    I don't think you should game-plan on the assumption that a starter will get injured, but history suggests that the possibility of Denard getting knocked out of a game is more than just a remote hypothetical. For this reason, I suspect Gardner will not play as an every-down WR, because he will still be getting a lot of QB reps.

    As for 2013, I think Gardner would be the overwhelming favorite to start at QB, unless he has an Anthony Carter-like season at WR. His ceiling at QB is just so much higher than Bellomy's, and I don't think a true freshman would be the coaches' preference, if they can avoid it.

    1. The nice thing about a 2012 QB would be to have another guy to compete for the starting spot in 2013. Agree that he would not add much this year.

      Many people do not realize how much Gardner struggled last year behind the scenes. He has not developed since Hoke has been here and the coaches were pretty frustrated with him as the 2011 season wore on (performance and attitude).

      Gardner's trial at WR makes sense for two reasons. He of course has the physical makeup to contribute there. Another factor is that Gardner would not take well to slipping to #3 on the QB depth chart. That is at least a 50-50 proposition if Bellomy continues to improve.

    2. If you look at quarterbacks at Michigan over the past decade or so, I think it's clear that you need more than 3 quarterbacks - and what we're seeing is exactly why. There's very little position flexibility (the reason Gardner CAN'T move to wide receiver, no strings attached, is that he's needed for QB depth), and there's very little room for attrition. How many quarterbacks have transferred away from Michigan in the last 10 years? Gutierrez, Mallett, Forcier, Threet, Feagin, the other Forcier, Richard (left for baseball), Bass (got injured). I mean, that's EIGHT potential quarterbacks in the last decade, and I don't even know if that's all of them.

      And yes, a 2012 quarterback might have been fourth string, but he's probably better than Jack Kennedy. And Shane Morris isn't signed yet. What if he gets injured? What if he decides to go to USC? I'm not really worried about him going elsewhere; all I'm saying is that pinning the future of the program on a high school sophomore (now a junior) is somewhat iffy. Lots of things can happen. If Gardner transfers after this season, we're left with Bellomy and a true freshman Morris. If Bellomy transfers, we're down to a senior Gardner and a freshman Morris. Doomsday scenarios are unlikely...

      ...but then why go 4-deep at linebacker? Demens, Bolden, Jones, and Ringer are all playing MIKE. Morgan, Hawthorne, Poole, and Ross are all playing WILL. Why do the coaches want 15 linemen? It's about depth and competition. We're four deep at both inside linebacker spots, the coaches want to be three deep at every single line position...but you're only going to have three quarterbacks, one of whom moonlights at wideout? It just doesn't really make sense.

      The coaches are good. I like them. The program is in good hands. But the logic that "a 2012 guy would have been a career backup" doesn't really fly with me.

    3. I believe Morris hurt us some declaring as early as he did particularly after such sterling performances at the camps as he took on an aura of heir apparent.

      I may be completely wrong here, but am inclined to think that we get a better look from Kiel if Morris hasn't already committed, not that I think Kiel is all that as his what I thought to be very strange decision making process warned me off of him more than a little.

      Still, it seems reasonable to suppose that there were other guys who didn't want to come in front of the phenom Morris regardless of what one might think about that kind of thinking.

  9. this sounds like last year......move denard to the slot or wr and move devin to the starting qb....blah, blah, blah. Have some confidence in our coaches. who thought our defence would be as good as they were last season??
    next question who stood out on was a team effort. it will be the same with the wr group, they will step up to the challenge big time and it will always be someone different.
    we have an AWESOME team including coaches who will do what it takes to WIN.
    slow, short, it doesn't matter. who made the any "all teams" on our defence but yet we had a really good defense.

  10. I don't get why people act like this has to be decided now. Nobody knows (even the coaches) if he's more valuable as a backup QB or a WR. It depends on unknowns like Denard's health and the development of Bellomy and the WRs as a group. Since we don't know, the coaches are exploring it, which is fine. Keep practicing Devin primarily at QB, because he's clearly the best option if anything happens to Denard. In his 'spare time' explore what he can do at WR. Gather info now, decide later.

    I for one, find it hard to believe that Gardner is going to be an impact player at WR. Nearly every time an athlete QB, even a GREAT one like Kordell Stewart, attempts move to WR the results are underwhelming. Devin will know the playbook and have more maturity, but he'll still be freshman-raw when it comes to playing WR.

    I'm in the camp that thinks the WRs are going to be OK. Their production was limited by the fact that Hemingway and others around were pretty decent players and that Denard was pretty inaccurate as a passer. Gallon and Roundtree have shown they can win some of the same jump balls that Hemingway did, but either way these are high risk/variable plays. Maybe none of the WR are the elite athlete that Gardner is, but they have some play-making ability too.

    In this offense, the WRs aren't that important. They're going to have one-on-one coverage b/c of Denard legs. If Denard is accurate, any half-decent WR will be productive.

    1. Denard has proven to be inaccurate in each of his three seasons. So. You need playmaking wide receivers. Michigan doesn't win the 2011 game against Notre Dame or the Sugar Bowl without the hands/leaping of Junior Hemingway, and we all know that Gallon might never ever win another jump ball. Jerald Robinson might be able to replicate Hemingway's playmaking, but the 2011 team wouldn't have been in the Sugar Bowl without him in the first place. Denard's legs are a very valuable weapon, but they're not a cure-all. You still need receivers to make things happen because Denard will miss his share of wide-open guys, and he will also chuck the ball up to guys who are mostly covered.

      I don't think the decision has to be made now, but I do think that if there's a possibility Gardner might be a heavy contributor at WR in the fall, then it's a good idea to get him reps now (in the spring) to prepare him for the transition.

    2. If indeed the kid is struggling with attitude as stated above, one way to perk him up is to get him busy.

      Running him back and forth between spots and coaches all spring/summer, providing him with a role and a route to the field along with hopefully some success, hopefully might provide a spark.