CHICAGO — Devin Gardner is just certain Michigan is ready to return as a national contender this fall.
So you think the Wolverines quarterback was going to back down Wednesday on his much-publicized pledge UM will beat Ohio State?
Not a chance.
“I’m not going to retract my statement,” he said on the first day of the Big Ten’s annual media gathering. “I never said ‘promise,’ and I never said ‘guarantee.’ I said we’re going to work hard and we’re going to do our best, and I do believe we’re going to win the game. That’s not arrogant. And if that’s not OK with the media, I don’t know what to tell you. That’s me being me.”
Earlier this summer, Gardner told a Michigan radio station the Wolverines are “definitely a championship-caliber football team that will win in the ‘Big House’ against Ohio State.”
Either way, the point is he’s confident — a theme underscored time and again by him and his teammates.
The Wolverines face many questions as they attempt to distance themselves from last year’s 8-5 disappointment. They must, for instance, identify a workhorse rusher, rebuild both sides of the line, and push on without their best defensive player.
Coach Brady Hoke said Jake Ryan remains on course for an October return, though it is uncertain how effective the star linebacker can be after tearing his ACL in March.
Yet Michigan returns 12 starters — including left tackle Taylor Lewan, who bypassed NFL riches to return for his senior season — while Gardner, a redshirt junior, should be a snug fit in the offense Hoke has wanted to implement since arriving in 2011.
Unlike pint-sized Denard Robinson, a singular run-first talent, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Gardner looks and acts the part of a pro-style quarterback. In fact, the Wolverines’ offense was far more potent last year after Gardner took over for the injured Robinson. The career backup, who began last season as a wide receiver, passed for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in five games.
“The opportunity for Devin to get experience and move back to quarterback meant a lot,” Hoke said. “And it meant a lot for his experience and how he learned from those things, good and bad.”
Gardner is the undisputed starter, no longer the preview but the main act bent on returning Michigan to where he and his teammates believe it belongs.
Ask him who is the team to beat in the Big Ten, and he spits back the answer before the question is finished.
“Michigan,” he said with a smile.
Hoke will not go as far, though as always, he said the Wolverines have one goal on their minds.
“And that’s to win Big Ten championships,” he said. “A year ago we were 8-5, and that’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable at Michigan. It’s unacceptable for us. In those five losses, we had 18 turnovers. So it tells you a little something that we need to be a little more diligent in taking care of the football. We need to be a little more diligent in making better decisions. Those are things that we've talked about, and we've [worked on] through spring ball.
“I like our football team. I usually don’t say that.”