Morris’s Future with Wolverines Depends on Gardner’s Success in 2014
By Brad Vonck
Michigan sophomore quarterback Shane Morris has a bright future ahead of him with the Wolverines. The key word in that sentence is future, as the Wolverines’ present belongs to redshirt senior quarterback Devin Gardner.
Last week, Brady Hoke announced that Gardner’s performance in both the spring and summer camps were enough to earn him the starting job for Week 1 against Appalachian State. The reactions to Hoke’s decision by the Wolverine faithful were mixed, as Gardner’s career has garnered its share of both praise and scrutiny. When we reviewed this quarterback controversy in the spring, I made it known that I believe Gardner has earned the right to be the starter when the 2014 season kicks off. With the end of the off-season just days away, the biggest question Wolverines fans have is if Gardner’s play in 2014 will earn him the right to finish the season as the starter?
The answer is obviously yes, right? I would think so. Gardner is a lock to finish the season as the starter, because short of a sub .500 record in 2014 or a season-ending injury, I cannot fathom a scenario where Wolverines’ Head Coach Brady Hoke would believe benching Gardner mid-season would be in the best interest of his own future with Michigan. If Hoke were to drastically reverse course by benching Gardner, he would have to basically admit the 2014 season was lost, and possibly his career at Michigan as well. Aside from Hoke’s quest for self-preservation, a successful senior campaign by Gardner is in the best interest of both Michigan and Morris’s future in the long term.
Now, that does not mean I think that Michigan is a lock to have a stellar season, even with the recent season-ending injury to Ohio State quarterback, Braxton Miller. The Wolverines still have a lot to prove despite a successful offseason, as they attempt to rebound from a disastrous 7-6 campaign in 2013. On Saturday, August 16th, the Wolverines opened up the gates to Michigan Stadium to welcome in some 30,000 fans of the Maize and Blue to witness the first public scrimmage the team has ever had under the lights. While the Michigan faithful enjoyed the early opportunity to see Michigan’s 135th team in action, the night was not without its concerns. In particular, many in attendance observed a continuation of the poor offensive line play from 2013 that crippled the Wolverines rushing attached last year, leaving them 104th in the nation in rushing yards per game (125.70 YPG) in 2013 according to ESPN. As Mark Snyder from the Detroit Free Press chronicled, not one of Michigan’s, “[running] backs broke off even a 10-yard run, and the Michigan Daily counted 20 carries for just 33 yards by the first-team offense, “ Snyder continued. “Absent running lanes contributed as well, as the offensive line showed little progress from last year despite many new players.”
A one dimensional Wolverine offense would provide challenges to whoever was under center for Michigan this year. Gardner fell victim to poor offensive line play in 2013, especially against Michigan State where he was sacked seven times. Surely Gardner committed mistakes last season that only he could be criticized for, but the lack of a solid running game and pass protection only increased the pressure he faced. While last week’s scrimmage does not guarantee that such problems will continue to haunt the Wolverines, the thought of a developing quarterback’s first extended action taking place behind an ineffective offensive line would be very troubling to all who are invested in the sophomore from Warren, Michigan’s future.
By no means am I encouraging throwing Gardner to the wolves, (the wolves in this case are blitzing linebackers) but his overall mobility and familiarity with the offense provide him tools that can lessen the impact of poor line play. If you need proof, just take a look at his four touchdowns and 294 passing yards in a victory over Notre Dame last year. If Gardner could be that successful on a consistent basis despite a struggling offensive line, it would potentially allow Michigan’s new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier time to mend some of the issues. Nothing is guaranteed however, and offensive line issues may continue to be a thorn in the Wolverines’ side for the foreseeable future. At least in that scenario, Morris would have another year of experience before he is expected to lead the charge.
While I believe Gardner’s skill set provides him more ability to deal with the limitations the Wolverine offense may face in 2014, I can’t help but focus the weight of my argument for Gardner behind what is best for the Michigan program’s long-term outlook. I think Michigan fans who are demanding that Morris starts in 2014 need to realize what they could be signing up for. If Morris were to struggle due to inexperience and a questionable offensive-line, then an already one-dimensional offense would be even more limited. It doesn’t matter how good the defense is at that point, a frozen offense spells doom where it counts most, in the win column. While Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison would like to claim otherwise, Hoke needs a successful 2014 campaign to stay head coach. If Hoke loses his job because a Morris-led squad struggles, there are no guarantees that the next Michigan hire would fare well in 2015 with a squad of mostly Hoke’s recruits. At this point in the scenario, the Michigan program would be venturing down a rabbit hole of uncertainty that feels similar to when former coach Rich Rodriguez’s tenure ended in 2011.
Meanwhile, a successful year for Gardner provides a smooth transition for Morris. If that were the case, Morris would have an extra year to develop within Hoke’s program, and a full year with Nussmeier’s teachings before taking over as the full-time starter. The offense would have evolved (ideally) past its problems in 2013 and a new era of Michigan football would have been built from its past. If Michigan fans have seen anything since Lloyd Carr’s departure in 2008, it is that instability does not breed consistent success. Success with Gardner and Hoke now ultimately means the potential for success with Morris dramatically increases in the years to come. Michigan fans would appreciate a future that provides the potential for continued stability for the Maize and Blue.