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Is Devin Gardner poised to become best quarterback in the Big Ten?

Last season there wasn’t a more talked about quarterback in the Big Ten than the Michigan Wolverines’ Devin Gardner. He had a penchant from the spectacular and a penchant for some downright awful play all at the same time. However, as we come closer to the start of a new season, one thing is clear—Devin Gardner isn’t going anywhere as Michigan’s starting quarterback.

Head coach Brady Hoke nearly let the cat out of the bag while going through the ESPN “car wash” this past week.

“We’ve got great competition. If we opened the season today, Devin (Gardner) would start for the Wolverines,” Hoke said, via Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press. “He’s worked at it. He’s had a tremendous spring and summer; he’s grown closer to his teammates in a lot of different ways and really done a nice job preparing.”

As for last season — the maddeningly great and maddeningly cringe-worthy parts of Gardner’s game had no better example than in his play against Notre Dame. In that game, Gardner went 21-of-33 for 294 yards and threw four touchdowns, while also rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown.

It was the type of game that many hoped was the sign of things to come from Gardner. The problem is, all of that good also came with the bad, as Gardner threw a needless interception with his team up 34-20 in the early fourth quarter and gave the momentum right back to Michigan’s bitter rivals.

That play overshadowed a lot of the good done all game long and nearly cost his team the game. Little did we know, it was just a sign of things to come.

Over the next two weeks Gardner laid an egg — throwing for two touchdowns and five interceptions against might Akron and UConn. He also completed just 50.5 percent of his passes and had just 97 yards in the UConn game.

Michigan won those two games against teams it should’ve crushed by a combined seven points, and Gardner became the most vilified member of the Wolverines team.

His maddening inconsistency was on display all season long, but was it really on his shoulders? After all, his offensive line was in a constant state of flux and he was the Wolverines run game — two things that no quarterback can overcome in a pro-style offense.

Gardner showed more flashes of brilliance than duds in the Big Ten season — throwing for over 500 yards in a shootout with Indiana, completing 76 percent of his passes on an underrated Minnesota secondary and going toe-to-toe with Ohio State to end the regular season.

In fact, it is that final game that should give us a clue as to just how good Gardner can be when he has all the parts around him. He completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 451 yards and had four touchdowns with no interceptions in a narrow defeat.

Throw out the Akron, UConn and Michigan State games and Gardner completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards (average of 267.2 yards per game) and 19 touchdowns to five interceptions.

For me, those are numbers of a quarterback who can play at a very high level in the Big Ten. Yet, entering 2014, the real question is — which Devin Gardner shows up. We’ve seen the potential, we’ve seen the production, but we’ve also seen the inconsistency from him.

That’s where new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier comes in to the picture. Having a fresh face and a fresh perspective can make all the world of difference.

So far the dynamic has been just that — the duo challenging Gardner to be a great quarterback, no matter the things going on around him.

“He’s so hard on me, which I like,” Gardner said, via Brendan F. Quinn of MLive.com. “I like to be challenged and he’s challenged me in so many different ways.”

As for that offensive line challenge in front of him? Should it rear its ugly head once again, Gardner has been given more control over the pre-snap reads.

“He’s given me the opportunity to protect myself before the play starts,” Gardner said. “If I see something the offensive line might not see, I can make the change to make sure I’m protected.”

This much is clear — if Gardner is more of the Notre Dame version of himself, the offensive line shapes up and Gardner continues to be consistent, we could be looking at the Big Ten’s best overall quarterback by the end of 2014.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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