March 21, 2012

Move from QB to receiver has worked before

Michigan hasn't completed even a week of spring practice, yet there is already considerable buzz behind the walls of Fort Schembechler regarding Devin Gardner's potential move from quarterback to wide receiver. Such a transition is not unprecedented ...

Just two years ago, four-star MarQueis Gray sacrificed a season at quarterback to play wide receiver for a talent-strapped Minnesota squad that was set at QB with returning starter Adam Weber.

The 6-4, 240-pound Gray caught 42 balls for 587 yards and five touchdowns in 2010. He proved one-half of a formidable receiving tandem that included Da'Jon McKnight (48 receptions for 750 yards and 10 scores).

"I think he did a fantastic job,"'s Matt O'Connell said. "He wasn't the fastest wide receiver but he had decent speed, and he was a big, lanky guy that had a natural instinct to go up and get the ball at its highest point. He used his body to shield defenders extremely well.

"I think he probably showed enough that year that someone in the NFL might give him a shot as a wide receiver someday."

Gardner stands a similar 6-4, and at his last weigh-in was 205 pounds, though he likely has added another 10 or so. Like Gray, he was an elite dual-threat quarterback in high school and has shown some skill at wide receiver in summer camps before he enrolled at U-M and during the first few days of spring ball this March.

With the dearth of playmakers at receiver - fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree and redshirt junior Jeremy Gallon are the lone known commodities - Michigan has apparently turned to Gardner and is giving him an opportunity to learn receiver, and potentially impact there, in addition to his responsibilities as the Wolverines' backup quarterback. Gray was in the same boat, and was able to handle both tasks.

"They had a couple other quarterbacks on the roster, but one was a freshman and the other a true freshman, and it was pretty clear that if Adam Weber went down MarQueis was the short- and long-term solution," O'Connell said. "The only time he ended up seeing the field, other than in mop-up action, was against [Michigan State].

"In practices, though, he spent more time at quarterback getting reps because they were still looking at him as the future after Weber left."

Gray took over as the starting quarterback in 2011 and completed 50.7 percent of his passes for 1,495 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He was rusty in September, but improved as he became more comfortable.

There could be concern Gardner would face similar struggles in 2013 if he transitioned back to quarterback with the departure of Denard Robinson, but O'Connell thinks U-M's junior signal-caller has an advantage over Gray.

"There were a couple of mitigating factors - MarQueis was working with his third coordinator in as many years, and that hurt him as much as anything," he said. "He also hadn't played as much quarterback as Gardner has. MarQueis missed most of his senior year of high school with an injury, then sat out a year with Clearinghouse issues. He saw a little bit of time as a redshirt freshman in 2009 but not much, and then he was a receiver as a sophomore.

"Gardner has played a lot more quarterback than MarQueis did at the same point in their careers."

With another season, Gray is seeking to become one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks as he makes the complete transition back to his natural position. Gardner won't have two years. He will be a senior in 2013 (unless a medical redshirt comes through for him) and even then, he could stay at receiver if this talked-about move proves a difference-maker. But whether it's a one-year (or even less) or two-year move, it makes some sense.

"At the end of the day, it was about getting your most talented players on the field," O'Connell said. "They had Da'Jon McKnight and nobody else at receiver, and then they had this unbelievable talent who was going to be holding a clipboard for the entire season because it was clear, at that juncture, Adam Weber was the better quarterback.

"There were probably all the same concerns with MarQueis that you'll have there at Michigan - the injury risk, whether it's fair to the kid, though he was always a team-first guy and never complained, and on and on - but I think most fans understood what the coaches were doing.

"If you've got an impact player just biding his time, you're not doing him any favors nor the team keeping him on the sideline. So they made the decision to put him at wide receiver and looking back on it, it was a good decision."

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