'Warrior' Gardner is Michigan's main man

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When asked why Michigan's offensive performances went through such wild fluctuations last season, quarterback Devin Gardner didn't go looking for excuses.

"My play wasn’t as consistent as it needs to be," he told ESPN.com. "I feel like that’s where it starts. If I'm not consistent, then I don’t feel like the rest of the team can be."

Gardner is likely being too hard on himself. Sure, his season saw plenty of ups and downs. He had the two biggest passing days ever by a Wolverine against Indiana (503 yards) and Ohio State (451) and turned in some other huge statistical Saturdays. He also struggled with turnovers at times and was ineffective in ghastly offensive outputs against Connecticut, Michigan State and Iowa.

Still, Gardner finished second in the Big Ten in total offense, and he and receiver Jeremy Gallon were the two most reliable weapons Michigan had last season. A spotty offensive line and poor running game served as much bigger culprits in the week-to-week unpredictability of the offense.

Yet Gardner understands that the responsibility for a team's performance almost always lies at the foot of the quarterback, fairly or not. The Wolverines lack many accomplished veterans, particularly on offense. Gardner wants to be the guy who lifts them out of mediocrity.

"If we don’t have a leader who's going to fight till the end, it's kind of hard for the guys that are following," he said. "I feel like that last game I played in, they really looked to me as a leader, as that warrior who will be there no matter what."

That last game, of course, came against Ohio State on Nov. 30. Gardner accounted for five total touchdowns and nearly led Michigan to the upset before his two-point conversion pass attempt was intercepted in the 42-41 loss. It was later revealed that Gardner had played most of the second half on a broken left foot.

Gardner said he wasn't sure that the foot was broken at the time but that he knew something was really wrong. There was no time to tape it or add any extra padding. So he just played through it.

"It was very painful," he said. "I wasn’t the only one hurting, so I just felt like I had to finish for my teammates.

"It's 'The Game' for a reason, and so you've got to give it everything you've got. So even if I had to hop on one leg , which sometimes I was, that's just how it had to happen. I told my teammates, 'All right, I'm not going to be able to move a little bit here, so help me out.'"

His teammates had already seen Gardner suffer bodily punishment for the cause, especially during a pounding at Michigan State. But this was something even more impressive.

"It's definitely not like we didn’t respect him before," offensive lineman Kyle Kalis said. "But when you see that, it's like, damn, this guy can really play through pain."

"Him going out there and being a warrior didn't surprise me," head coach Brady Hoke said. "But I think it was a learning experience for him also. He learned he can push through things. He willed himself to keep pushing."

Gardner surprised the Michigan coaches and even the medical staff by getting through all of spring practice. Heading into the final week of drills, he estimated that his foot was about 80 percent healthy. He didn't fare well in Saturday's spring game, going just 2-for-10 with an interception, but there's little doubt that he's the starting quarterback despite some spring talk of a competition.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is promising to install a more physical point of attack and a better north-south running game. Gardner, who carried the ball 165 times last year, is hoping that will help keep the wear and tear down during the season.

He needs to continue improving his decision making, and he has watched film of past Nussmeier quarterbacks Jake Locker and Keith Price from Washington and AJ McCarron from Alabama.

"Those guys get the ball out of their hands and are really efficient," Gardner said. "[Nussmeier] is so big on being efficient and on things he calls winning plays, which are checking down to the back or throwing the ball away when it's not there."

Nussmeier sees similarities to Locker in Gardner's game.

"He's obviously an exceptional athlete," Nussmeier said. "He's continuing to learn how to do some of things he'll be asked to do in this system. He has an extremely high ceiling and exceptional touch. His accuracy is really good when he gets his feet and eyes in the right place. He's working to find that consistency, and lot of that is understanding the progressions."

Nussmeier praises Gardner for "really making a commitment to elevating his level of play" this offseason. After a brief consideration about turning pro, which wasn't much of an option with his injury, Gardner said he returned for his fifth year because "I've got a lot of unfinished business." That includes, he said, gaining revenge on rivals Ohio State and Michigan State as well as ending Michigan's Big Ten title drought.

It's going to take more than just the quarterback to get all of that done. But Gardner says it all starts with him.

"You have to have the attitude that you're not going to get beat," he said. "You're not going to give up."