Michigan Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner enters his junior season as the unquestioned starter for the first time since taking his immense talents to Ann Arbor.
With an entire offseason to develop chemistry with his receivers, work exclusively at the quarterback position and polish his fundamentals, Gardner has all the makings of a Heisman Trophy dark horse.
That may seem like a bold proclamation considering Gardner only started five games in 2012, but he has the type of skill set that justifies such talk despite the lack of tangible experience.
Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports cited sources in attendance at the Manning Camp this summer, where a standout performer was the Wolverines' signal-caller:
Gardner has a lively arm and the wheels to be a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. Not only will he be a far better fit than Denard Robinson was in head coach Brady Hoke's pro-style offense, he can also run the zone-read option that puts defenses on its heels with regularity.
After all, before Gardner took over under center for the Wolverines, he was a valuable contributor at wide receiver, finishing fourth on the team with 16 catches for 266 yards. He also tied leading receiver Jeremy Gallon with four receiving touchdowns, which was second on the Wolverines.
The fact that Gardner was even considered to take over for an established and prolific starter such as Robinson last season is a testament to the talent he possesses. When the then-sophomore did take the reins from the outgoing senior, Gardner pretty much lit it up.
In just five starts, he accounted for 18 touchdowns—11 passing and seven rushing—and lost by only five points apiece on the road to Ohio State and in the Outback Bowl to the Jadeveon Clowney-led South Carolina defense.
Gardner is keen on getting revenge in the Big House against the arch-nemesis Buckeyes.
Beyond his obvious confidence and visible physical gifts, what might have been most impressive was Gardner's 9.69 yards per pass attempt with a receiving corps that he had scarce reps with—and was even a part of for much of the year.
Now that he's allotted time to adequately prepare as the field general in the same offensive scheme that seems tailored to his talents, it's scary to think what Gardner could do in 2013.
What helps Gardner a lot is the return of fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was considered a consensus first-round pick had he declared for the recent NFL draft.
Then there's Fitzgerald Toussaint, the likely starter at running back.
Toussaint followed up his 1041 yards rushing as a sophomore last year by being charged with a DUI just days before the season began, then saw his yards per carry drop by nearly two yards. His campaign was cut short when he broke his leg against Iowa.
Apparently, the senior has turned over a new leaf, taking over as the leader of the running backs and putting the onus on himself to set a fantastic example.
Junior RB Thomas Rawls provided some compelling and convincing testimony to MLive.com's Pete Cunningham:
One thing about us, as a unit, is we look up to the old guys. The guys who have been through the struggles, that have fought through adversity, and have been through a lot of things and one of them is Fitzgerald Toussaint. Fitz is an amazing leader, captain, and a guy who pushes us.
As long as Gardner has a reliable back in Toussaint to rely on, Michigan's offense should be balanced and extremely dangerous.
If Toussaint can create any kind of diversion as a runner, it will open Gardner up to not only throw the ball down the field—an evident strength of his game—but to also tuck and run for big gains.
Rising sophomore Devin Funchess is a lethal pass-catching tight end who should only improve with a pure passer throwing him the ball. Reigning lead receiver Jeremy Gallon is best friends with Gardner, which bodes well for their chemistry on the gridiron.
It's due time for the Wolverines to return to prominence in college football. Gardner will be a huge reason why—and should have a big enough individual year to be in the Heisman conversation.