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September 2, 2012

Notebook: Devin Gardner debuts at wide receiver

Since spring practice, when word first broke out of Schembechler Hall that junior quarterback Devin Gardner was taking snaps at wide receiver, the Wolverines have been both excited about his potential at the position and tight-lipped about how much he would be used there.

During pregame warmups before the clash with Alabama, Gardner exited the locker room with receiver gloves on his hands - and although he would take a few reps with the second-team offense during the wamups, those gloves were a fairly good indication of how Gardner's role on the offense against the Crimson Tide.

Robinson's first pass of the game went Gardner's way on a slant that was catchable but broken up. He was targeted several more times, including two deep balls that were thrown into coverage. At one point in the second quarter, Gardner slid down the sideline and, with Robinson throwing out of his own end zone, climbed the ladder and nearly came down with a highlight reel catch, before it was broken up by Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner

"He was open," Robinson said. "I've got to give him the ball. I know he can make big plays."

With 14 seconds to go in the third quarter, Gardner made his first catch of the season (and second of his career, after a two-yard grab against Minnesota last year). Following a breakdown in the Crimson Tide secondary, Robinson threw it up for Gardner, who adjusted near the goal line, caught the ball and trotted the last yard into the end zone for the Wolverines' second score of the game.

"I think he played pretty well," Robinson said. "It was his first time playing in a real game as a receiver. We'll see more from him."

"I think Devin's a pretty special athlete," Michigan coach Brady Hoke added. "To get another athlete on the field helps us."

Interestingly, Gardner is still listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart, but he does not appear to be the next guy in, should something happen to senior quarterback Denard Robinson.

With 4:25 left in the third quarter, Robinson took off on a fourth down attempt and reached for the sticks. He appeared to hurt his back on the play. He came out, and redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Bellomy looked poised to replace him. The youngster put his helmet on and began to trot on the field, but replays showed that Robinson did not convert on the play.

On the Wolverines' drive, Robinson was back in.

In the final minutes, Robinson was sent to the bench, and Bellomy, not Gardner, replaced him at quarterback. On the first pass of his career, Bellomy threw behind his target and was intercepted by freshman linebacker Dillon Lee.

Wolverines Struggle On The Ground: Michigan made national news when Hoke announced his decision to suspend redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint for the Wolverines' season-opening battle against defending national champion Alabama.

Toussaint, who pled guilty to driving while visibly impaired charges earlier in the week, is an electric backfield complement to Robinson, and it was obvious that his presence - and the 1,041 yards he put up last season - would be missed.

And it definitely was.

The Wolverines netted just 69 rushing yards against the Crimson Tide in a 41-14 loss Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium.

It marked the second consecutive game Michigan has failed to reach the 100-rushing-yard plateau. In January's 23-20 overtime win in the Sugar Bowl, the Wolverines tallied just 56 yards on the ground.

"I thought we'd block them a little better," Hoke said after the game.

In Toussaint's place, two running backs stepped up: senior Vincent Smith and sophomore Thomas Rawls.

The Alabama front seven, led by senior defensive tackle Jesse Williams, cut off running lanes in the middle, and the speed of the defense, as a whole, made it nearly impossible for the Wolverines to reach the edge or execute slower-developing zone plays.

Smith finished with a team-high 33 rushing yards - including a long of 22 - on 13 carries (2.5 yards per rush). Rawls added nine yards on six carries.

"We can't come out and play lightly," Robinson said. "We've got to come out and play Michigan football from the start. We can't take anybody lightly. That's the biggest thing."

After the game, Hoke lamented the Wolverines' play along both lines, but said his linemen will learn from lining up against a unit as physical as Alabama.

"We've got some guys and these kids that are working their tails off and doing a good job," Hoke said. "They'll get better as we go. [Alabama] is a seasoned front, which is something that you want to play against - at least I do - and coach against. But we'll make our strides."

Adding to the frustration in the ground game, Robinson himself never got going, finishing with 27 yards on 10 carries.

Since he began starting in 2010, Robinson has rushed for fewer than 30 yards in a game just one other time (vs. Virginia Tech, 13 yards). His 10 carries were the fewest since rushing six times against Minnesota in the fifth game of the season last year.

'There are some that we're going to run him a little more," Hoke said. "There are some read plays in there that maybe he could have kept it. I'm sure he kept it once or twice. But we couldn't establish the line of scrimmage, so when you can't do that, that doesn't do you very well."

Injuries, Lineup Questions Abound: A football season is a long, grueling process and there is definitely cause for concern when a player - especially a starter - goes down with an injury in an early-season game.

A couple of marquee Wolverines suffered injuries against the Crimson Tide.

On the Wolverines' first punt of the game, sophomore cornerback Blake Countess, who was poised to have a breakout season in 2012 after a solid freshman campaign, tweaked his knee and did not see the field again.

"He's a talented ballplayer but the next guy steps up," fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs said. "[Sophomore Raymon Taylor] came in and I think he played pretty well. I don't think that affected our game plan at all. We have all the confidence in the world in Ray and [freshman] Jarrod Wilson came in as well, and played some safety. Ray played a good ball game, and he'll learn from his mistakes as well."

After his injury, Countess was seen on the sideline, having his knee worked on by the Michigan training staff. After the game, Countess walked off the field on crutches.

Redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan suffered a late-game injury, too, needing the help of a trainer and Hoke to get off the field. After the game, he limped gingerly into the locker room.

Hoke was asked about the status of the two, and he replied, "I don't know."

There were also a few lineup shakeups that were not expected.

Monday before the game, fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer was named the starter at left guard. When the Wolverines took the field, however, he was playing center and presumed center Ricky Barnum, also a fifth-year senior, had moved out to guard.

"They had been both playing a lot of center, a lot of guard," Hoke said. "We just felt some of the shotgun stuff, Elliott was a little better."


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