Gardner strives to prove critics wrong

INKSTER, Mich. -- Putting a football in Devin Gardner's hands is like handing a master artist a paint brush and an empty canvas.

Within seconds, an array of possibilities present themselves as creativity begins to give way to a breathtaking masterpiece. Technique becomes one with natural ability.

That's precisely why Devin Gardner always wanted to play quarterback: He wants to be the one holding the brush, controlling each stroke in order to form perfection out of nothing.

Within the confines of Gardner's football gallery, there is no room for flaws. While others may rest in a successful body of work -- which in Gardner's case includes an appearance at the prestigious EA Sports Elite 11 quarterback camp and a scholarship at Michigan -- Gardner continues to add dimensions to his canvas.

"A lot of people get complacent," said Gardner, the nation's No. 5-ranked quarterback in the ESPNU 150.

Not Gardner.

Not when he's still got another shot at the state championship that Inkster just missed out on last season, and certainly not when there are those who still doubt Gardner's abilities. The naysayers claim Gardner can't throw, despite the nearly 1,900 passing yards and 26 touchdowns he amassed last season in his first year of running Inkster's wide-open spread offense. The doubters aren't convinced of Gardner's ability to move, given his 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame.

Gardner's evidence that suggests otherwise? The 1,400 yards and 22 rushing touchdowns he recorded as a junior. People question his leadership abilities despite a work ethic that Inkster coach Greg Carter ranks among the best he's ever seen over his legendary coaching career.

Yet for all his accomplishments, Gardner still strives to prove his critics wrong -- not so much with a verbal defense, but rather with his game-changing abilities.

"With me, you better prepare for everything you think could happen because anything can happen when I've got the ball in my hands," Gardner said. "I've got the ball in my hands every play, and it's my show."

But Gardner's appreciation for his art hasn't always been as honed as it is now. He arrived at Inkster last fall after missing more than half his sophomore year at University of Detroit Jesuit High School because of disciplinary issues. Gardner sat for five games before returning for the final four games of the year.

By the end, the Cubs hadn't won a game, and Gardner, who hadn't worked as hard as he should have during his suspension, was left to swallow some difficult life lessons. It proved to be the turning point of his career.

"I had never sat out before, and that hurt a lot," Gardner said. "It was a bad feeling, and I did a lot of growing up. I just knew I had to get better."

That's when Carter entered the equation. Carter, who led Detroit's St. Martin de Porres to three state championships before coming to Inkster, immediately saw Gardner's potential.

For all of Gardner's raw talent, though, some areas of his game had to improve. His mechanics, which have been described as unorthodox, had to be sharpened. His vision needed to be expanded.

But there was something about Gardner's work ethic Carter couldn't ignore. And although Inkster's way of doing things differed from what Gardner was used to, Carter asked his new star pupil just to trust him.

Like any other player in Carter's program, Gardner wasn't promised anything. His efforts on the practice field would dictate what he did on Friday nights. But in Carter's equal-opportunity system that thrives on pushing one another, Gardner quickly found himself taking on the perfectionist nature of his coach.

"Our practices are meticulous, and we don't let Devin do anything wrong," Carter said. "I think the first thing that you have to do as a player when you want to get better is that you have to realize you have some faults."

Gardner pushed himself under Carter's direction, using his coach's constructive criticism to drive his game forward. And by the end of his junior season, Gardner was a four-star recruit, keeping company with the nation's top quarterbacks. At the Elite 11 camp, he fed off the abilities of the others around him. He'd watch his quarterbacking counterparts, making mental notes of what each did well.

Never one to shy away from competition, Gardner committed to Michigan knowing that Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez already had a pair of talented freshman quarterbacks in Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson.

Like always though, Gardner -- who said he hopes to enroll at Michigan in time for the spring semester -- won't allow others to dictate his goals of turning himself into a known commodity.

"I still think I can go there and make a name for myself -- I think I can play there," Gardner said. "So that wasn't a factor."

As he finishes his prep career, Gardner maintains a standard of perfection to gauge his progress. And after an 0-2 start to his senior season, Gardner has led Inkster to three straight wins, still hoping to capture a state championship before he's done.

Gardner won't accept anything less than greatness and is constantly pushing himself to become a complete quarterback. And while his critics may misconstrue his confidence for cockiness, Gardner continues to motivate himself rather than listen to his detractors.

"I'm comfortable with myself, and I know what I can do and what I work on doing," he said. "I know myself."

And at the level Gardner plays at, confidence isn't a bad thing. Especially for someone who is still putting finishing touches on what he hopes is a masterful career.

"He wants to be the best not only for us as a team, but for him personally," Carter said. "I think it's a good thing for a kid to want to be the best. And not only does he want to be the best, he puts the work in to be the best, and I think that's what separates Devin."

Jeff Arnold is a sportswriter in Michigan.