No one suggests that the elbow injury Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson suffered late last season was in any way good for the Wolverines. The three-year starter and multiple-NCAA record holder's absence torpedoed their Big Ten title chances.
What's fair to argue, though, is Michigan's response to that situation might have created better championship hopes down the road.
Robinson's injury led coaches to return Devin Gardner to quarterback from wide receiver.
Robinson's injury gave the junior from Detroit a five-game head start on taking over the offense. (And now that Gardner has been granted an extra year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending back injury in 2010, Michigan is looking at two years of quarterback stability.)
More importantly, Robinson's injury fast-forwarded the offensive transition coordinator Al Borges has sought since he arrived with head coach Brady Hoke three years ago.
Robinson was so electrifying in the shotgun/spread formation that Michigan couldn't just toss that aside in trying to reboot the program after the failed Rich Rodriguez coaching experiment from 2008-10.
The Wolverines, with the 5-foot-10 Robinson running to daylight and passing only as needed, got close to a championship but didn't play for one.
Now, with the 6-4, 210-pound Gardner in place, his skill set seems like a hand-in-glove fit with the retooled attack.
“This is the style we need to be in,” All-America offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said. “We've got maulers up front. This spring, we ran a lot more under-center stuff.”
The Wolverines aren't an exclusive two-back or two-tight end set team.
“We'll still have some spread because Devin's got wheels, too,” Lewan said. “He's very elusive.
“But I think we're doing what these coaches want to do. Coach Borges is much more comfortable running this kind of offense. We're a lot more under center with a lot more power scheme.”
The stronger passing threat Gardner provides excites Michigan coaches. Robinson, in his eight starts in 2012, threw nine touchdown passes. Gardner, in five starts, threw 11.
Hoke, who offers public praise sparingly, isn't anointing Gardner as any kind of savior.
“Devin started five games,” Hoke said. “We won some, we lost some. They were learning experiences on both sides that you live and grow with.
“But when you look at his intelligence level and football instinct, it's very high. He loves to study the game, loves to look at film, loves to really be competitive.”
Gardner came to Michigan as the nation's top-ranked dual-threat prep quarterback, according to Rivals.com. But after getting stuck behind Robinson on the depth chart for two years, the Wolverines moved Gardner to wideout last season to get him more playing time.
Nebraska benefited from that position switch.
Last Oct. 27, Michigan was driving for a potential go-ahead touchdown in Lincoln late in the first half when Robinson left due to injury. Gardner hadn't practiced at quarterback since early in the season, so redshirt freshman Russell Bellomy came in.
Bellomy completed only 3 of 16 passes with three interceptions. Nebraska's 23-9 victory put the Huskers in control of the Big Ten Legends Division. The teams meet at Michigan on Nov. 9 this season.
The move back to quarterback and to a different offense hasn't fazed Gardner.
“I'm adjusting fine,” he said. “I felt like I was recruited for pro-style and for spread, so it's not like you just lose it.”
The early speculation about Michigan is that the Wolverines might be a year away from a Big Ten or national title run, considering the departure of Robinson and the season-ending spring knee injury to second-leading tackler Jake Ryan.
That's not what Lewan, the offensive line star, wants to hear. He would have been a surefire No. 1 draft pick, but eschewed the NFL to play another year at Michigan and win now.
How many people have called him a fool for that choice?
“Above a baker's dozen,” Lewan said, laughing. “But I'm not too worried about. If I do the job I'm supposed to, I won't look stupid for much longer.”
Michigan won't have to worry about looking that way, either, if Gardner progresses in 2013 as expected.
“It's really hard to see a guy like Denard go,” Lewan said. “But I think Devin is a special athlete. I have 100 percent faith in him.”
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