Ready to be the man

TAMPA, Fla. -- The future turned into Devin Gardner's present in the beginning of November, when the recruited quarterback turned actual wide receiver moved back to his original and preferred position.

He improved steadily after his first start against Minnesota in the beginning of November, won his first three games as the Wolverines' main quarterback and ushered a come-from-behind win against Northwestern in his second one.

He was finally settled in. For the first time since he played at Inkster High School, Gardner had some time without a game to prepare and learn as the starter, to improve on technique and learn aspects of the offense instead of just a gameplan for a Saturday contest.

And while it didn't always show during South Carolina's 33-28 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl, there were signs of improvement. He might have thrown the ball high, but he also hit receivers in stride and on target many other times. After a first-drive interception, he threw three touchdowns.

He also ran the ball better than he had earlier in his career, showing increased pocket presence and knowledge of when he had to take off or move the pocket with a rollout situation.

"I played OK," Gardner said. "We didn't win, so it didn't matter how I played."

In terms of wins and losses, Gardner did fail, although he led his team down the field to take the lead with 3:24 left after he hit Jeremy Gallon on a perfectly timed slant. And Gardner doesn't play defense, which failed in big spots Tuesday, so he can't be blamed for that.

For the most part, Gardner stayed composed Tuesday when he completed 18 of 36 passes for 214 yards, three touchdowns and the aforementioned interception. He made plays when he had the opportunity to, except when he sometimes tried to do too much.

More importantly for Michigan, he gave himself something to build on going into the offseason. In his five games as the Wolverines' starting quarterback this season, he completed 75 of 126 passes for 1,219 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. The 11 touchdowns in five games are more than the nine Robinson threw for in seven-plus games.

Gardner also rushed for 101 yards and seven touchdowns this season.

"I thought he played pretty well. He handled the situation well," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "It's another growing experience. We were playing big games, good competition.

"He missed a couple throws but that's usually mechanics as much as anything else. Maybe not stepping through the throw, throwing off the back foot down the field, in the middle of the field, which we really didn't want him to do. Other than that, I thought he played a good football game."

It was an effort to grow on for Gardner. He will be Michigan's starting quarterback next season in a pro-style offense which will fit his skills -- throwing the ball well and deep and also running to get out of trouble -- with a full offseason to get everything right.