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CHICAGO — At the Manning Passing Academy earlier this month, Devin Gardner barked orders to the budding quarterbacks who surrounded him. The pace of his speech got faster, and he expected the campers he worked with to know exactly what he was saying.
As he set the ground rules at the Thibodaux, La., camp, Gardner realized something.
“Oh my gosh,” he said to himself. “I’m turning into Coach Nuss.”
It’s too early to say whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for the Michigan football team’s fifth-year senior quarterback, but those few moments were evidence of Gardner’s growth and his association with Doug Nussmeier, the Wolverines’ first-year offensive coordinator.
“He’s a player’s coach and I really enjoy working with him,” Gardner said Tuesday at the Big Ten media days at the Hilton Chicago. “He’s had a lot of success and that makes it so much easier. You pretty much take everything he says and commit it to your life.”
A former NFL and CFL quarterback who has coached at Michigan State, Fresno State, and Washington, Nussmeier established himself as a savvy recruiter who oversaw a big-play offense that helped Alabama win two BCS titles.
At Michigan, Nussmeier has to recondition an offense that sputtered in the second half of 2013. His first step was to get to know his quarterbacks.
“The first day of practice, you’ve got to find out how he coaches,” Gardner said. “But the first day we met, we were cool. I was on crutches, but it was cool. The day he got hired, Archie Manning texted me and told me how great of a coach he was and how great of a man he was. I was so excited, and I felt like he could only mess it up if we didn’t click.
“When you played the position, the small things you see on the field or the things that you see off the field, it’s easier for him to relate to me and to talk to me about things.”
Nussmeier has also set a high bar for Gardner.
“He’s really embraced what we’re doing,” Nussmeier told Fox Sports earlier this month. “He’s worked extremely hard. He spends extra time in the office studying film on his own and doing the extra thing it takes to play at a really high level.
“Coming off his injury he was limited in the spring but went to every practice, took every rep that we asked him to, and he’s had a great summer to date as far as rehab goes and is really throwing the ball well. We’re expecting big things from him.”
Gardner has become the focal point of a team that won only two of its final six games in 2013, and questions surrounded his confidence in a stretch where he took a beating behind a patchwork offensive line — at one point Gardner was sacked 20 times in a four-game stretch in the second half of the season.
“When you’re faced with adversity, you have two options,” said Gardner, who went 208-for-345 passing for 2,960 yards and 21 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. “You can fight through or you can back down. I didn’t back down one bit.”
Gardner showed his mettle at the end of November when he continued to play after he sustained a broken toe and torn ligaments in his left foot during the third quarter of a 42-41 loss to Ohio State. He finished with 451 passing yards and four touchdown passes.
“He got beat up, and you’ve got to give him credit because he came back and he always came back,” UM coach Brady Hoke said. “He tried to have a great attitude. From my perspective, he did. Everyone, social media, all that stuff, it was always Devin’s fault. And that’s not true.”
Furthermore, Gardner isn’t deterred or distracted by the fact that Hoke has all but established a competition with Shane Morris for the starting quarterback job in Ann Arbor. Gardner has set two goals for himself in his final season at Michigan: to be consistent and to set an example for Morris and true freshman Wilton Speight.
Hoke, however, has already seen a byproduct of Gardner’s work with Nussmeier.
“He’s more confident,” Hoke said. “Him and Doug have had a great relationship. It always hasn’t been a fun relationship but I think with Doug’s pedigree, to some degree, and what he’s done and who he’s coached, even back to how he played, it’s pretty significant.
“There’s a lot that he has done to build relationships and to build that relationship, and I think it’s really positive.”