CHICAGO -- Maybe it was all too much too soon.
He was supposed to be the better so-called pro-style passer, the better fit for the Michigan offensive system, the breakout player anointed as Michigan's next great one, complete with a specially selected No. 98 jersey that Heisman winner Tom Harmon wore. He was supposed to be the face of Michigan football in a season in which the Wolverines could climb back into the top 10 and compete for a Big Ten championship.
None of that happened as planned, instead leaving Michigan with one of the most frustratingly uneven seasons in program history. As always, blame the quarterback.
For the most part, the 2013 version of Devin Gardner is remembered for getting sacked. And the costly turnovers and bad decisions with the football. And the near-losses to Akron and UConn. And the second-class status Michigan was relegated to as archrivals Michigan State and Ohio State dominated the Big Ten. Nothing in 2013 went as planned for Michigan, coach Brady Hoke or its then-junior quarterback, meaning he's undergone a transition from next big thing last summer, to, after Michigan finished 7-6, an easily dismissed stopgap before another quarterback and maybe even another coach takes over.
"Everybody's going to say whatever they want to say, but my job is to make sure he's not on the hot seat; so that's what I'm going to do," Gardner said on Monday at Big Ten media day. "I'm going to make sure we win football games. I'm going to play as hard as I can with my teammates, and I'm going to encourage my teammates and my teammates are going to encourage me. We're going to make sure that isn't even a talk anymore."
Overall, Gardner's 2013 season wasn't all as bad as you remember: He finished first in the Big Ten (16th nationally) in yards per attempt at 8.6 and completed a decent 60 percent of his passes. Michigan finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring with him behind center most of the way. In the regular-season finale against unbeaten Ohio State, Gardner played his best game, throwing for 451 yards and four touchdowns in an upset bid that came up a two-point conversion short -- despite the fact that he broke his foot during the game. And all of this was done 1) behind a patchwork offensive line that rarely got a push, and 2) under frequently questionable play-calling that saw the Wolverines stubbornly refuse to adapt to their talent and instead, at times, insist on power football when power football had no chance of being successful.
That's where Doug Nussmeier is supposed to come in. The former offensive coordinator at Washington (2009-11) and Alabama (2012-13), Nussmeier is charged with not exactly reinventing the Michigan offense from the Al Borges era -- Hoke isn't moving away from power football -- but tweaking it enough to capture more of the highs of last year's unit (Notre Dame, Ohio State, Indiana) while avoiding the devastating lows (UConn, Akron, Michigan State, Iowa, the run game vs. Penn State).
This isn't a systematic offensive overhaul like Kurt Roper will try at Florida in an attempt to save Will Muschamp's job; it's more of a corrective measure to adjust a philosophy to create a higher probability of success after the Michigan offense was so boom-or-bust last fall.
"It's a lot more simple," Gardner said of the transition from Borges to Nussmeier, saying that there aren't as many situational variations for players to memorize. "It makes it easier for them to understand so that they can play fast. It's hard to play fast when you're on offense and you don't know exactly what you're doing or you have a question of what you're doing."
Under Borges, Michigan's usually strong offensive play deteriorated into a punch line, and the situation was made worse by coaching decisions that only served to magnify the problems. Gardner didn't help himself by making some ugly decisions when pressured, leading to bad fumbles and interceptions. But it's also unfair to place too much of the blame on the quarterback in what turned out to be an all-around problematic offense that saw its leading running back average 3.5 yards per carry and its passing game rank 109th in sack percentage.
Of course, that's not to say Gardner occupies some unassailable position. Despite returning as a senior starter, Hoke threw open the doors to a quarterback competition in the spring, with Gardner technically still trying to fend off touted sophomore Shane Morris -- who started the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State with Gardner sidelined by his injury. For his part, Gardner is taking it all in stride, saying that he's spending much of his time trying to help his younger backups get ready to play, the same as former Michigan starter Denard Robinson did for him. Gardner said it's his responsibility to help them while also helping himself enough to ensure sure that he's still the choice.
Obviously, he needs help too, and it's not like the supporting cast is hopeless, even if at times it felt like that last season, and even if the losses of wideout Jeremy Gallon (89 catches) and left tackle Taylor Lewan (No. 11 overall pick) make it look like the problems may only get worse. Three projected starters on the offensive line (Erik Magnuson, Kyle Bosch, Kyle Kalis) are sophomores who were highly touted recruits. All-Big Ten end Devin Funchess has officially shifted to wide receiver and may pose the biggest matchup problem in the conference. Sophomore running back Derrick Green was a five-star recruit, and it's possible the Wolverines will have another one in USC transfer Ty Isaac if he's granted immediate eligibility to join Green in the backfield. And Garner was particularly excited on Monday about the potential of true freshman receiver Freddy Canteen, who participated in spring practice.
Throw in a fresh start under an experienced new offensive coordinator, and there is hope that Michigan will, at worst, stop the bleeding and, at best, capitalize on its sleeper status behind archrivals Ohio State and Michigan State in the new Big Ten East.
"You don't ever want to see a rival win a championship, especially if they beat you to get there," Gardner said. "So my job is to try to make sure that doesn't happen this year. … I'm not an attention guy; just hang in the background and maybe surprise some people."
It's a lot of pressure, putting the weight of his coach's job and the program's status on his shoulders. Last year, with so much anticipation for his leap to full-time starter, neither Gardner nor the rest of the offense was ready to handle it. Now, though, he's been largely dismissed despite the fact that he has a second chance under a new coordinator as a senior, a time when, based on last year's circumstances, he still deserves the benefit of a clean slate.