Devin Gardner showing off his mobility against Notre Dame. (Amanda Gosline/MJ)
Devin Gardner showing off his mobility against Notre Dame. (Amanda Gosline/MJ)
Devin Gardner showing off his mobility against Notre Dame. (Amanda Gosline/MJ)

Editor’s note: This is part one of 10 positional previews on the Michigan football team entering this season.

By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor

Devin Gardner completed one of the most prolific seasons under center in Michigan history last fall. But that still might not be enough to win an open quarterback competition on a team NFL.com ranked second in its Quarterback U feature.

In the first of 10 positional previews on the Michigan football team, Sports Editor Ricky Lindsay breaks down the men vying for time under center come fall.

The favorite

Player: Devin Gardner

Eligibility: Redshirt senior

Height/Weight: 6-4, 216 lbs.

Passing

12 G, 345 attempts, 208 completions, 60.3 completion percentage, 2960 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT

Rushing

12 G, 165 attempts, 483 yards, 2.93 average, 11 TD, 13.75 attempts/game

Devin Gardner tosses a football during Michigan's spring game in April. (Rebecca Gallagher/MJ).
Devin Gardner tosses a football during Michigan’s spring game in April. (Rebecca Gallagher/MJ).

After producing solid numbers while filling in for the injured Denard Robinson near the end of the 2012 season, many expected Gardner to take the next step. Eventually, he did, with turnovers aplenty between. 

In the Wolverines first six games last season, Gardner tossed 10 interceptions. In four of those games, two of his passes landed in a defender’s hands. 

But in the final four games of the 2013 campaign, Gardner flashed his potential as the interception column on his stat sheet featured zeroes. 

He went 87-for-143 passing (61 percent completion percentage) with 971 yards and eight touchdowns to zero interceptions. Though 451 of those 971 yards came against Ohio State and its atrocious passing defense, the performance still carried weight.

Gardner’s 60.3 completion percentage in 12 games ranked 59 out of 100 eligible FBS quarterbacks, per cfbstats.com. His 11 interceptions, albeit coming in the first eight games of the season, were the second highest amongst 17 Big Ten quarterbacks that took snaps under center in 2013.

Entering this season, it’s hard to believe what Gardner will take the field on Aug. 30. Does the signal caller that showed improved decision making down the stretch last season show up, or will it be the fifth-year senior that struggled in this year’s spring game? 

Unlike last season, Gardner doesn’t have to be the man this year. With negative rushing performances, it quickly became obvious that the lone way the Wolverines would succeed was through the air. From an on-paper perspective, those woes should be behind the team. Michigan possesses a young, talented backfield that will look to finally produce at the collegiate level.

In a cloud filled with ambiguity, one thing’s for certain; the open competition this year, regardless which player grabs the nob under center, will produce two improved quarterbacks. With his experience at the helm, Gardner’s the smart choice. 

Plus, would the Wolverines really sit a player donning a Legends jersey, especially Tom Harmon’s? Probably not.

The (hometown) kid

Player: Shane Morris

Eligibility: Sophomore

Height/Weight: 6-3, 204 lbs.

Passing

5 G, 47 attempts, 29 completions, 61.7 completion percentage, 261 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 99.84 rating

Vs. Kansas State (BWW Bowl/only start in ’13)

38 attempts, 24 completions, 63.2 completion percentage, 196 yards, 1 int

Shane Morris competes in Michigan's 2014 spring game. (Rebecca Gallagher/MJ).
Shane Morris competes in Michigan’s 2014 spring game. (Rebecca Gallagher/MJ).

Shane Morris and idea situations just didn’t mix last fall.

Ideally, he should’ve redshirted as a freshman to learn the ropes of the college game without burning eligibility. When that didn’t happen after Russell Bellomy tore his ACL in spring practice, it made sense for Morris to get snaps early against “cupcake” foes.

But Michigan’s 2013 season was far from ideal.

With the Wolverines struggling against teams like Akron and UCONN, Morris never received a solid amount of live action before being launched into the fire during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He threw nine collegiate passes before making his first career start.

If Morris struggled in the BWW Bowl, there probably wouldn’t be any realistic reason to have a quarterback competition. Relying heavily on the screen pass, he went 24-for-38 for 196 yards and an interception for a solid performance.

In Morris, Michigan is getting a pocket passer that can occasionally roll out to extend plays. But is he ready to lead a team in desperate need of a winning season?

Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards in his spring game debut in April, but it’s just a scrimmage. Unless he wows the coaching staff in fall practice starting on Aug. 2, the sophomore quarterback will likely find himself with a clipboard until Gardner struggles.

The dark horse

Player: Wilton Speight

Eligibility: Freshman

Height/Weight: 6-6, 234 lbs.

School/Hometown: The Collegiate School/Richmond, VA.

Stars (Rivals): ***

Quarterback Wilton Speight. Photo courtesy of MGoBlue.com.
Quarterback Wilton Speight. Photo courtesy of MGoBlue.com.

Even Wilton Speight has been thrown into Michigan’s quarterback competition. Has playing a true freshman quarterback as of late worked out? Go ahead, point to Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, but both of them were redshirted with one year of college under their belts during their Heisman seasons. (Not everyone is Manziel or Winston, either).

I’m not saying this couldn’t work out. Speight played football at a prep school and led his team to a 9-2 record last fall. Oh, and Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson is an alumnus from The Collegiate School, too. 

But for Michigan, maximizing a player’s potential like Speight is key. Wasting an opportunity to maintain four years of eligibility where playing time is an actuality is not. There’s no sense to hamper his development by rushing him out there.

Longterm, I’m high on Speight’s potential. He has a terrific arm. I’d take him over an inexperienced Morris next fall (assuming Gardner grabs the starting reigns and holds tight).

Closing thoughts

Once its competition concludes, there’s no reason Gardner shouldn’t be the first quarterback Michigan strolls out on Aug. 30. He was my choice as Big Ten offensive MVP in our 2013 season predictions. I expect a similar level of production while NFL teams salivate over his professional potential.

It’d be nice to see a player like Russell Bellomy get a shot under center for Michigan this season, especially with what he’s been through over the course of his collegiate career. But with the trio above, it’s doubtful barring injury.

If Michigan’s season tailspins early — there’s really no reason it shouldn’t be undefeated when Oct. 11 rolls around — I fully expect a quarterback change from Gardner to Morris. Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s seat isn’t getting any cooler and jobs will be at stake.