The last time Devin Gardner played at Michigan Stadium, he had a serious foot injury and threw a heart-wrenching interception, sealing a defeat to archrival Ohio State.
After an extended rehab, he surprised coaches and teammates by fully participating from the very first spring practice and worked hard to recapture the starting quarterback position. Midway through spring practice the competition at quarterback was described by Gardner as “fierce,” but his experience has appeared to give him the edge over his rivals.
But the first play from scrimmage was a reminder of how far he still needs to go to lead Michigan back to the top of the Big Ten.
After going through position drills and the routine of a regular practice, Brady Hoke lined up his offense and defense to scrimmage at Michigan Stadium.
Gardner took the snap and then threw an interception, not a great start for a Michigan team which hopes to recover from a disappointing 7-6 record.
Gardner realizes that this season is his last chance to leave his mark at Michigan: ”Your senior year is your last opportunity to make something happen and leave your stamp, further your legacy here at the university.”
Under ideal conditions, playing quarterback at Michigan comes with intense pressure, but last year’s disappointing finish and the dismissal of Al Borges has amped up the scrutiny of Gardner.
Heading into a his senior season, Gardner needs to learn a new offense and win a spirited competition with Shane Morris, Wilton Speight and Russell Bellomy.
“I found myself trying to be super perfect in everything,” said Gardner in response to the competition. “Obviously you can’t be perfect, but you play the best you can.”
Gardner scoffed at the suggestion that he had lost ground in the position battle due to his performance during the scrimmage.
But he acknowledged that Doug Nussmeier has high standards when evaluating the performance of his players.
“He demands perfection,” said Gardner. “Even when you have a big play he finds something that can be improved.”
Gardner has proved his toughness by playing through a severe foot injury versus Ohio State and finishing rehab to be ready for spring practice.
What remains to be seen is whether Gardner can maintain his hold on the starting position.
Morris gained valuable practice reps when Gardner went down last season.
"He's getting better every time he goes on the field, and sometimes that's making a mistake that you learn from,” said Hoke. “I am much more comfortable now because of the experience that he has had."
Even Gardner raves about Morris’ arm strength, calling it the strongest he’s ever seen.
In an offense where the quarterback will run less, minimizing one of the Gardner’s strongest traits, does he have the arm strength and accuracy to run Nussmeier's offense?
A few weeks ago, freshman Speight also made it clear that he’s not backing away from competing with Gardner.
“I’m trying to be better than Devin,” said Speight. “Every little move he makes I’m watching and taking mental notes and making sure that I do the things he does well and I don’t do things he messes up on.”
Gardner may be the starter coming out of spring practice, but fans should stay tuned—after watching the spring game, it’s clear that the competition is far from over.
Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via press conferences or in person.