Devin Gardner remains a solid Michigan man even as the nightmare endures

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It was a press conference notable only for not being notable, Michigan players well-trained in the art of saying nothing that might further motivate rival Michigan State ahead of Saturday's game.

Then came a question that encapsulated this entire flipped script and reminded Devin Gardner just how strange it had all gotten nearly five years after he arrived here as a hot-shot recruit to the winningest program in college football history and, it goes without saying, the undoubted king of instate programs.

Devin Gardner warms up against Penn State. (USA TODAY Sports)
Devin Gardner warms up against Penn State. (USA TODAY Sports)

It served as a verbal milestone of what happens to a good kid when a great program breaks bad all around him … and there isn't much he can do to stop it.

"We know you want to win … [but] are you capable of beating Michigan State?" a reporter asked, respectfully. "And would you like to ruin their season?"

Capable? Yes, capable.

This seems like something you ask some low-budget, small-conference team headed for a nonconference payoff at Alabama. Not Michigan. And not against Michigan State … right?

Or is that really how far Michigan football has fallen, and conversely how far eighth-ranked, defending Big Ten champion Michigan State has climbed?

Capable?

And even if you were capable, the question implied, all you'd be accomplishing is spoiling something good for them, not assuring anything good for yourself because your season and your program is hopeless anyway.

The press conference had already been Spartans this and Spartans that, Spartans this season and Spartans last. For Gardner it looked even more painful than the eight sacks State hit him with in a blowout last year.

No, neither he, nor any of his teammates, saw this coming, at least not on the field. Not 3-4 on the year, not 7-6 last season, not a coach and an athletic director on the hot seat, not losing five of six in this series, not being a 17-point underdog against MSU … or Little Brother as they used to be able to call them.

Maybe for Gardner it's even more personal though. He's a Detroit kid, the latest in a long, long line of Detroit kids who roll out to Ann Arbor seemingly destined for glory.

And he's the quarterback – "I get the ball every play," he noted. So he's front and center. They even gave him a look-at-me number – 98 – to honor Ole 98, Tom Harmon, which is cool, but feels more like a marketing gimmick his play never merited.

Gardner committed to U of M in April 2009, when the program was coming off a 3-9 season in Rich Rodriguez's first year, but that was assumed to be nothing more than a blip. Rivals.com ranked him the top dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2010, a seemingly perfect fit for Rodriguez's offense. He also doubled as an athletic, 6-4 wide receiver capable of causing nightmares for defensive backs. Michigan State was a mid-pack Big Ten program, like always.

Since then everything has changed except Gardner's love for his school.

He made sure to graduate high school early so he could arrive a semester ahead of time, in January 2010. With a medical redshirt, he's still here, nearly five full years later, now as a graduate student.

He's played quarterback. He's played wide receiver. He's run the ball, caught the ball and thrown the ball. He's played in the spread. He's played in a pro-style.

He's played hurt, including two quarters against Ohio State with a broken foot, according to the Detroit News. He's played when he was destined to get hurt, like when all those Spartans kept swarming on him over the depleted offensive line last year.

"Last year, I think as an offensive line we went out there and just let go of techniques and fundamentals and played chaotic," center Jack Miller said.

Devin Gardner gets knocked down amid chaos. Devin Gardner gets back up and comes back for more amid chaos.

He's been the starter. He's been benched. He's been the starter again. He's been benched again. He's been blasted on social media, occasionally with racial undertones, the punching bag for angry fans frustrated over the losses.

He does it with few, if any, complaints. He does it with few, if any, bitter pointed fingers. He never transferred. He never let his grades fall. He never stopped doing his job. He carries himself with dignity, especially off the field.

He's already earned a bachelor's degree. He's working on a master's in social work. He's regularly involved in campus life, being a real student.

He came to Michigan because it felt like family, because for all its success, it wasn't just a football factory. He's done everything to carry out that tradition.

He was selected to be part of a small group that met with President Obama last year. He's a weekly regular at children's hospitals and city elementary schools, trying to spread hope at both ends of the spectrum. Last summer, he worked daily with the Peace Neighborhood Center, to help children affected by social and economic problems. In his free time he was back in Detroit, trying to lift his old neighborhood through grassroots work.

This is your classic Michigan Man … a Michigan Man in every way. That part of the vision has come true. That much he could control.

It's the wins, which is what everyone pays attention to, that haven't materialized and that part hasn't always been in his control.

Devin Gardner was sacked eight times by Michigan State last year. (USA TODAY Sports)
Devin Gardner was sacked eight times by Michigan State last year. (USA TODAY Sports)

He didn't hire the coach. He didn't hire the AD. He didn't call the plays. He didn't chaotically play offensive line against the Spartans.

It isn't his fault that he, probably best suited as a wide out, is still playing quarterback. Michigan has forever enjoyed such an embarrassment of QB riches that Tom Brady was a part-time starter. Yet it never recruited or developed a pro-style guy best suited for Brady Hoke's offense.

So Gardner is still the only choice, even if it has hindered his chances at the NFL, where he'll have to change positions to make it.

Still, there are no arguments. His mindset, coaches say, is the same every week, no matter how bleak the tape or how harsh the criticism on Twitter or even the time this year they briefly demoted him to second string in favor of an unprepared Shane Morris before realizing how wrong they were.

It's always how do I get better … how do I get to work … how do I help the team, the team, the team?

"He's a very, very intelligent guy," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "Devin's preparation has been outstanding. … Week in, week out he has done the extra things to play well."

So what happens when a kid does everything asked of him, on and off the field, and the fairy tale never comes true? What happens when you go to college with grand visions of academics, life, experience and football and the part that 100,000 people show up to watch each week is the one that can't get on track?

What happens when Michigan stops being Michigan, and it gets so bad the starting quarterback is asked if the Wolverines are even capable of beating the Spartans anymore.

"It's only Tuesday," Gardner said. "We're working."

Of course, he is. Of course.

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