Third-down king Devin Gardner has makings of great QB
ANN ARBOR -- Devin Gardner has looked good in his first three starts at quarterback, giving Michigan hope that life without Denard Robinson won't be so bleak after all.
But can he be great?
And what separates the great ones from the good ones anyway?
Offensive coordinator Al Borges has an interesting answer -- and, if it holds true, Gardner does have a chance to be great.
It all starts with a conversation Borges had several years ago with the late Bill Walsh, the architect of Borges' preferred West Coast offense. Walsh said it comes down to "the third play."
“I asked him, ‘What makes a good quarterback and what makes a great quarterback?’" Borges said. "He says, ‘The third play.’ So what do you mean the third play? He goes, ‘Well, the system quarterbacks can run the first two plays and complete the pass or hand the ball off. But on the third play, when something breaks down, when I didn’t call the perfect play, when a receiver falls down, when the protection breaks, when they just flat cover you, what does a quarterback do?
"Does he create so I get more calls or does he just simply go down and get sacked so that we punt? The great quarterbacks can make the third play, whereas the systems quarterbacks usually make the first two.’"
Gardner has started only three games heading into Saturday's matchup against No. 4 Ohio State (11-0, 7-0), so it's too early to extrapolate much from the data.
But the data he has posted has been flat-out incredible.
- Michigan has converted 23-of-33 third downs with Gardner in the past three games -- a whopping 69.7 percent. It converted 47 percent in its first eight games.
- Gardner accounted for 18 of the 23 conversions, 10 by air and eight by ground.
- Gardner is 10-of-13 passing for 165 yards, five touchdowns and no picks on third down. Each completion achieved a first down.
- Gardner ran 10 times on third down, gaining a first down eight times and scoring two touchdowns.
- Michigan converted 6-of-9 third downs that required at least 10 yards. Gardner was 5-of-6 passing for 121 yards and four touchdowns in those situations.
- Michigan converted all three third downs of longer than 10 yards.
Gardner took a good third-down team and made it a great one with both his arm, when something was open, and his feet, when it wasn't.
"Good instincts," Borges said. "And what’s kind of cool -- and Denard and Devin both -- is sometimes you don’t call it perfect and he can improv you into the next first down. That’s a really neat deal because the key is to keep the chains moving so you can call more plays.
"What Devin’s done a good job of is, when it isn’t there, creating something to get us more calls (by moving the chains). Get the receivers touching the ball more. Get the tailback touching the ball more. There’s just no way you can call everything perfect. Can’t do it. So what’s going to happen when you don’t?"
Robinson was a weapon on third down, too, because of what he can do with his feet. He was difficult to stop on short- and mid-yardage third downs, especially on designed quarterback runs.
So far, Gardner has exceeded him, in part because he also gets it done vertically. That stretches defenses, which gives him running room when nothing is open.
It's still too early to declare Gardner a great quarterback, and his torrid pace is not sustainable. But, according to Borges, he has the stuff to become one.
"I think he's just getting better with his decision making," cornerback J.T. Floyd said. "What he's doing, whether it's pulling the ball down on third-and-3 and getting 4 yards for a first down, whether it's hitting the check-down to the tight end or the running back, I think his decision making is getting better and better.
"He's always been a guy you look at, 'OK, he has great instincts. He's instinctual.'"