QB Curve: Is There Still Time for Michigan to Fix Devin Gardner?

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Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different college signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective.

QB of the Week: Michigan’s Devin Gardner

Typecasting: The Square Peg. It’s official: Devin Gardner is broken. Michigan fans feared as much before the season, and four games in, their concerns have come to pass. Some of the accompanying questions — who broke him? When? Can he be fixed? — are still open for debate, and because that debate involves Michigan’s starting quarterback, you can rest assured that every corner of it is being thoroughly examined as we speak. The answers have potentially far-reaching consequences, especially concerning the fate of head coach Brady Hoke. But the facts speak for themselves: In two relevant games this season, against Notre Dame and Utah, Gardner has committed six turnovers and Michigan has failed to score an offensive touchdown. Now, coaches are on the brink of replacing him with sophomore Shane Morris. Gardner began his career in Ann Arbor as one of the most touted quarterback recruits in school history, and he may end it on the bench.

It’s a testament to Gardner’s raw potential that any of that initial optimism managed to survive the 2013 campaign, and a testament to his resilience that he managed to survive as well. From midseason on, Michigan’s offensive line was a patchwork disaster, shuffling starters on the interior line on a near-weekly basis; collectively, those players ranked 112th in adjusted sack rate and yielded more tackles for loss than any other FBS offense. On consecutive weekends against Michigan State and Nebraska, Gardner was sacked a combined 14 times. In arguably his best game of the season, the regular-season finale against Ohio State, he played for most of the afternoon on a broken foot.

But there was also the fact that Michigan shook off its November slump to hang 41 points on 603 yards of offense against the Buckeyes, coming within a two-point conversion of a season-salvaging upset. That November high followed a 41-30 win over Notre Dame in September, in which Gardner had four touchdown passes, and a 63-47 melee against Indiana in October, in which he smashed every major Michigan passing record. Those periodic glimpses of his ceiling were enough to fuel high expectations for his senior year, which were further stoked by the exile of maligned offensive coordinator Al Borges. (Not to mention by the assumption that the offensive line could not conceivably be as bad again.) Is that version of Gardner gone for good? With the entire Big Ten schedule still in front of them — and a watered-down schedule, at that, with Michigan skipping Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa in the cross-division draw — the Wolverines stand a chance of salvaging 2014. But it’s not clear that they can do so with Gardner as their quarterback.

At His Best: Initially, Gardner was regarded as a bigger, less one-dimensional heir to Denard Robinson in the spread scheme favored by Hoke’s predecessor, Rich Rodriguez. That role put a premium on the quarterback’s ability to serve as a de facto tailback, and although Gardner has nowhere near Robinson’s elusiveness in tight space or second gear in the open field, the gradual disappearance of designed quarterback runs from the playbook has been a source of ongoing frustration. Even under Hoke, who prefers statuesque, stand-and-deliver types like Morris, the reins haven’t always been this tight: Through the first seven games of 2013, Gardner averaged nearly 14 carries per game (including sacks), running for a team-high 520 yards and nine touchdowns in that span; against Penn State alone, he ran for 121 yards on a steady diet of pistol and read-option looks.

His rushing numbers over the second half of that season and the first few weeks of the current campaign have dwindled, due to some combination of the collapsing O-line and the philosophical leanings of the coaches. Still, one of the few positive plays against Utah was an ad-libbed, 18-yard scramble in the first quarter, and the passing game benefits immeasurably from Gardner’s ability to elude pressure and find open receivers on the fly.

Physically, the tools are there. When he’s had time to step into throws, Gardner has flashed NFL-caliber arm strength to go along with his 6-foot-4 frame,1 and when he’s accurate, the result is a thing of beauty.

The guy on the receiving end of that throw, Devin Funchess, was a perpetual mismatch last year as a tight end (see the Penn State linebacker above trailing helplessly in man-to-man coverage), and has stood out as the only reliable positive in 2014 after making the full-time switch to wide receiver; given his phenomenal size and catch radius against smaller cornerbacks, Funchess is almost impossible to miss. As long as the junior keeps making catches like this, the Gardner-to-Funchess connection is the one aspect of the Michigan offense that undeniably works.

At His Worst: Turnovers are a long-standing issue: Through the first six games of 2013, Gardner was picked off 10 times and lost four fumbles. And although he took much better care of the ball over the subsequent six games, as the offense ground to a halt, he’s off to another overly generous start this year, with four giveaways (three interceptions, one fumble) at Notre Dame and two interceptions against Utah.

On Saturday, the second interception in particular was a groaner because it highlighted (among other things) Gardner’s well-established tendency of staring down his intended receiver. This is the throw that got him benched against Utah, and potentially more permanently:

Again, the obvious issues on the offensive line make it difficult to discern how much of the blame falls on the quarterback; against Utah, he was sacked three times, a couple of which were clearly attributable to breakdowns in the protection. But then there are examples like this one, in which Gardner looked up to find two rushers on top of him after a pointless play-fake to no one:

That’s a breakdown on multiple levels, including on the offensive line, but a fifth-year senior in his 24th career start is supposed to mitigate some of those errors. Instead, Michigan has been defined by them because Gardner routinely looks as confused as everyone else.

To Saturday and Beyond: We should find out today whether Gardner or Morris is slated to start this weekend’s Big Ten opener against Minnesota, which seems like a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t scenario. The general feeling among the fans is that Gardner is a lost cause and it’s time to move on. (He appeared so out of sorts against Utah that some observers left wondering if Gardner is harboring a secret injury.) On the other hand, Morris has done nothing whatsoever in his relief appearances to suggest he’s going to fare any better; his only career start, in last year’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, went poorly, and his first possession against Utah, following Gardner’s second interception, ended with an even uglier interception. Hoke is in no position to sacrifice the present for the future.

If Morris is the pick, Gardner could find a part-time home at wide receiver, reprising a role he played to pretty good effect over the first few weeks of 2012. If coaches stick with the incumbent, he would benefit from a package that makes at least some token attempt to force opposing defenses to respect his ability to run — if not as a Robinson-caliber breakaway threat, then at least as a guy who’s capable of averaging five yards per carry and moving the sticks on a semi-regular basis. When the offense worked during the first half of 2013, that’s exactly what Gardner did. At this stage of his career, his accuracy and mastery of the system are unlikely to improve. But the more often he’s able to tuck and run in a non-breakdown, non-panic scenario, the more room he and the receivers are likely to find downfield.

Quick Outs

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A few weeks back, I suggested (along with a great number of Clemson fans) that the Tigers would have been better served in their opening-week loss at Georgia if they had damned the torpedoes and handed the starting job outright to true freshman Deshaun Watson, a hyped recruit who appeared poised to surpass senior Cole Stoudt on raw talent alone. On Saturday, Clemson coaches — clearly acting on my advice — decided to take the plunge in the most hostile conditions imaginable, inserting Watson late in the first quarter at no. 1 Florida State and riding him the rest of the way in a near-ambush of the defending champs. Under the circumstances, the kid was gold, hitting 19 of 28 passes for 266 yards and no turnovers; in a little more than three quarters’ worth of work, Watson led two touchdown drives, a field goal drive, another drive that should have resulted in points,2 and completed seven passes covering at least 15 yards. That may turn out to be the best performance against FSU’s defense all season.

In fact, the decisive plays that tilted the final score in the Seminoles’ favor were out of Watson’s hands: Clemson went down twice in the span of a few minutes while attempting to plunge a tailback directly into the line, resulting in a devastating fumble at the end of regulation and a failed fourth-and-1 conversion in overtime. Neither call deserves to be second-guessed, but it is worth pointing out just how close Watson came in his ACC debut to claiming the biggest victory of the early season.

Notice I didn’t say the biggest upset. The late-breaking full-game suspension of Jameis Winston shifted the scales dramatically, and it was all sophomore Sean Maguire could do to pull his own weight in the reigning Heisman winner’s stead: His first start yielded five sacks, two interceptions, and FSU’s lowest point total in regulation in three calendar years. Even Maguire’s crowning moment, a 74-yard touchdown pass to Rashad Greene that evened the score at 17 in the fourth quarter, was largely the result of a Clemson defender falling down on the coverage; on his very next pass, Maguire gift-wrapped an interception over the middle of the field that should have clinched the win for Clemson. FSU is nowhere near the no. 1 team in America without its starting quarterback, and even if this is the only bullet the Seminoles have to dodge this season, the prospects for 2015, when Maguire would be first in line to inherit the role full-time if Winston turns pro, took a hit after this outing.

Above and beyond all of that, however, was Maguire’s reaction to the Clemson fumble that absolved him of that ill-timed pick — a moment of such spontaneous, unguarded, wide-mouthed perfection that it clears him of any wrongdoing he’s ever committed.

This week’s Stat Line of the Week belongs to Old Dominion senior Taylor Heinicke, who connected on 27 of 43 passes for 430 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 185.2 efficiency rating in the Monarchs’ first conference game as members of Conference USA: a 45-42 upset over the defending C-USA champ, Rice. (Unfortunately, despite what YouTube says, none of those scores came on a fake punt, although Heinicke did add a sixth touchdown on the ground.) With less than a minute to play and the score tied at 42, Heinicke matched his longest completion of the day with a 45-yard strike to Zach Pascal, setting up a game-winning 25-yard field goal as time expired. 

Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week: Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas

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The Reggie Collier “Athlete” All-Stars honor quarterbacks who best embody the “dual threat” ethos of their inspiration, the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Thomas accounted for 290 yards (125 passing, 165 rushing) and two touchdowns Saturday against Virginia Tech, rallying the Yellow Jackets for 10 points in the final three minutes of a crucial, come-from-behind victory in Blacksburg. Like all Georgia Tech quarterbacks under coach Paul Johnson, Thomas’s primary responsibility is the triple option, which he operates like a vet: Through four games, he leads the team with 443 yards rushing on an impressive 6.8 yards per carry. Against the Hokies, though, he arguably made a bigger impact down the stretch with his arm, beginning with a do-or-die fourth-and-15 completion to DeAndre Smelter that kept the Jackets alive with a little more than two minutes to play:

From there, Thomas found a wide-open Smelter on a 31-yard touchdown pass that evened the score at 24, followed just a few seconds later (on the heels of a quick Virginia Tech turnover) by a 19-yard strike to Smelter at the Hokies’ 18-yard line. Cue the game-winning field goal and a 1-0 edge in the ACC Coastal standings.

QB Curve Power Hour!

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Ranking the nation’s best quarterbacks after Week 4.

1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Seven sacks undermined Mariota’s nearly flawless stat line against Washington State, an ominous sign behind a depleted offensive line. (LW: 1)

2. Bryce Petty, Baylor. Baylor isn’t scheduled to play a ranked opponent until November, so as long as his back holds up, don’t expect Petty to slip. (LW: 3)

3. Jameis Winston, Florida State. My thoughts on Winston this week are exactly what you’d expect from a sportswriter with a receding hairline assessing the behavior of a 20-year-old, so let’s skip the lecture and move on. (LW: 2)

4. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M. Hill attempted just 22 passes against SMU’s rock-bottom secondary, which would count as merciful if those throws hadn’t gone for 265 yards in a 58-6 massacre. (LW: 4)

5. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State. Frankly, when I profiled Prescott in this space last week, I assumed I was hitting the bubble on a high note before the inevitable crash at LSU. Instead, Mississippi State is basking in the aftermath of one of its biggest wins in decades, and the Tebow comparisons look right on the money. (LW: NR)

6. Shane Carden, East Carolina. After a disappointing night at South Carolina, Carden has bounced back by accounting for 864 yards and 10 touchdowns in back-to-back wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Can the Pirates advance directly to the ACC championship game, or is there some kind of paperwork? (LW: 10)

7. Blake Sims, Alabama. Remember, Sims was pegged by pretty much everyone as the backup until, like, 12 hours before the Crimson Tide’s season opener. All hail Kiffin. (LW: NR)

8. Everett Golson, Notre Dame. Stanford comes first, on October 4, but suddenly I’m very excited about the Irish’s October 18 trip to Florida State. (LW: 6)

9. Nick Marshall, Auburn. Marshall came through at Kansas State with two touchdown passes, but Auburn can’t expect to win many more games averaging 2.8 yards per carry. (LW: 7)

10. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. I stood up for Hackenberg’s less-than-inspiring efficiency rating last week, on the grounds that he’s the sun and the moon for an unbeaten team as a true sophomore. A light workout against UMass doesn’t change that, but it doesn’t help him hold off any of the fast-rising names on this list, either. (LW: 5)

Waiting: Connor Cook (Michigan State), Taysom Hill (BYU), Kevin Hogan (Stanford), Brett Hundley (UCLA), Cody Kessler (USC)

Filed Under: College Football, QB Curve, QB Curve Power Hour!, Devin Gardner, Shane Morris, Brady Hoke, Michigan Wolverines, Deshaun Watson, Clemson Tigers, Sean Maguire, Florida State Seminoles, Taylor Heinicke, Justin Thomas, Marcus Mariota, Bryce Petty, Kenny Hill, Dak Prescott, Shane Carden, Blake Sims, Everett Golson, Nick Marshall, Christian Hackenberg, Quarterbacks, CFB Stats, Football, NCAA, NCAFF, Matt Hinton, Jameis Winston

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton