Devin Gardner, who's attempted less than 200 passes in three years at Michigan, will enter the 2013 season under a massive amount of pressure. The flashes of potential he showed near the end of last season have given Wolverines fans hope and generated Heisman hype.
To his credit, the quarterback is taking it all in stride after switching back to his natural position to replace Denard Robinson during the stretch run. He played wide receiver to start the season and caught four touchdowns before the change.
Kyle Meinke of MLive.com passed along comments from the seemingly laid-back star. He doesn't sound too concerned about the Heisman talk.
"I'm fine with it," Gardner said. "I'm going to stay the same guy, no matter what. I've watched Denard through these years.
"I don't like to put pressure on myself at all, so I don't even listen to that. Putting pressure on yourself is the thing that helps to hurt you. I'd rather just play the best I can."
Michigan fans will be cautious after watching Robinson struggle to reach similar sky-high expectations in recent years. Yet, they also understand Gardner must build off his strong finish for the team to succeed next fall.
In five games, the Michigan native tallied over 260 yards per outing and 18 touchdowns. He threw five interceptions, but limited it to just one per game. That's something the team can overcome, unlike the multiple-interception games Robinson had too often.
Those are good numbers for Gardner. Even though the Wolverines only went 3-2 over that span, both losses were by a single score against strong teams from Ohio State and South Carolina.
Michigan was close to finishing the season on a very high note. Ultimately, the season will probably be remembered as a disappointment because of the preseason outlook, but Gardner almost saved it at the end.
Looking toward 2013, Michigan should be confident about its prospects. A strong group of returning players combined with the No. 5 recruiting class, according to 247 Sports, should make it a contender in the conference.
That said, a lot will depend on the play of Gardner. Robinson's inability to take his game to the next level stopped Michigan from reaching its potential over the past two years. If Gardner doesn't step up, the story will be the same.
The one thing that is probably going to be a telltale sign early next season will be his accuracy. He completed 60 percent of his throws after taking over for Robinson, which amounts to a middle-ground number. Not terrible, but not outstanding.
If he can bump that up close to or above 65 percent, the Wolverines offense should really take off and that's when the Heisman talk will actually take on some merit. The same goes for Braxton Miller at Ohio State, who checked in at 58 percent.
By comparison, Johnny Manziel's tremendous freshman campaign that led him to college football's top individual honor was fueled by a 68 percent completion rate. It might not sound like a major difference on paper, but those extra completions lead to extra first downs and it has a trickle-down effect from there.
Gardner has the talent, there's no doubt about that. However, his limited experience paired with the rising expectations are going to test him mentally heading into next season. It won't take long for the spotlight to get brighter with Notre Dame scheduled for early September.
How Gardner handles the heat will determine how much Michigan can accomplish in 2013.
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