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Robinson's backup plays his role

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Coming out of Inkster High School, quarterback Devin Gardner was rated one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. He was an All-American his senior year, throwing for nearly 2,000 yards, rushing for 1,000, and scoring 27 touchdowns while leading his team to the state finals.

During his freshman year at Michigan, with Denard Robinson in front of him and then suffering a lower back injury, he played in only three early-season games.

Then came a coaching change. Brady Hoke came in and brought offensive coordinator Al Borges and their offense from the West Coast. Would they change their well-established scheme to match Robinson's skill set, or would Gardner, the better passer, be more heavily utilized as the pro style signal-caller?

As fall practice began, it was apparent from the start it would be Robinson all the way. As Borges explained his thinking, Robinson "can do so many things that you don't draw on the chalkboard."

Gardner might have less opportunity to see the field now than he did in his freshman year. The new offense and the need to get Robinson ready for the Big Ten season means that his chances to get playing time and show his skills will be limited, no matter what the score. That was evident during Saturday's matchup, when Robinson was playing with a 24-point lead in the third quarter.

"I won't commit to putting in the second-[string] quarterback, I won't do that," Borges said a few days before the Western Michigan game. "I know everybody wants you to say, 'Oh, give him quality time in games and such.' I've heard that ever since I've been coordinating. The people who say that don't have to do what I do. … [Gardner] is a very capable kid who's gonna be a heck of a quarterback, but right now we're trying to develop Denard in our system and we've got to give him every opportunity to take advantage of that."

Gardner is in a similar situation to what Drew Henson experienced during his first few years as a Wolverine. Henson, coming from Brighton High School, being one of the best quarterbacks in the country, wound up playing understudy to Tom Brady. During Henson's freshman year he played limited minutes. During his sophomore year he and Brady split time until November, when Michigan was in the hunt for the Big Ten championship. That's when coach Lloyd Carr turned over all quarterback duties to Brady.

"It really ended up helping me, I think," Henson said of his time as a second-string quarterback. "So many things are good, like getting on the field early and playing. But having a veteran that's older, that you can kind of see the way they go about their business and training and preparing, it's a great example for younger guys. It's never easy to watch someone else play, but at the same time you have to take something from every day and every week to try and make yourself a better player, even if you're not getting those snaps on the field, knowing that your time will come."

Assuming Robinson stays to finish his senior year, the starting quarterback role wouldn't be open until the 2013 season. Technically, that would be Gardner's senior year. However, due to his back injury that affected his freshman year, Michigan petitioned the NCAA for a medical redshirt. The NCAA will not make a decision until the end of the 2013 season, so Gardner could be eligible for the 2014 season.

But 2013 also will be top QB prospect Shane Morris' freshman year. He could be Gardner's biggest competition, as no other quarterback has stood out in practice this year and no 2012 prospect has been recruited. But for now, the largely one-sided battle remains between Gardner and Robinson.

"It's never easy if you're close with someone you're competing against for playing time, but you know that they're trying to do the same thing," Henson said. "If you can be mature and take the attitude that I'm going to handle what I can do and he's going to handle what he can do and through this, we're both going to be better."

Gardner and Robinson spent most of the offseason working together and getting receivers on the field so they could work on the Wolverines' throwing game.

And for both signal-callers, that was a positive experience.

"Some things you don't see while you're playing because everything's going so fast," Gardner said. "So when you ask somebody on the sideline who's just as good as you, they can tell you what you did wrong, and the next play you can figure it out and see what was open."

"We always battle every day," Robinson added. "It's like a friendly battle. We always compete, and Devin is probably one of the best quarterbacks I've seen."

Robinson's opinion aside, it looks as though Gardner will have to wait for his time to work into Borges' offense.

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com.