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X League QB Gardner confident on field, comfortable living in Japan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

For a man from the Mitten State, practicing in hot, sticky humid weather in the middle of August in central Japan might be a little daunting.

Nonetheless, former University of Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is in high spirits as he prepares for his second year with the Nojima Sagamihara Rise of the X League.

The Detroit native hinted that he had other options instead of returning to the Rise.

“Yeah, yeah,” Gardner said, when asked if he could have stayed in the U.S. after the 2016 season, in a recent interview with The Japan Times at Nojima Football Park, the team’s practice facility.

This reporter waited for a few more words from him after that. But that was all he had to say, staying mum on the subject.

“I’ve been watching a lot of Marshawn Lynch,” Gardner said with a laugh.

But Gardner is happy to have a chance to reunite with the Rise, who will open their 2017 season against the Bulls Football Club at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki on Sept. 3.

“I enjoy life in Japan,” the 25-year-old said. “It’s pretty cool, except it’s so hot.”

Gardner endured a frustrating season last year, and the Rise finished with a 1-5 regular-season record. What’s more, all five defeats were in one-possession games, and three were by three points or less.

“And we had leads in most of them, too” he said. “That was the most frustrating part. Like, going in the fourth quarter, we usually had a lead and then somehow we ended up losing it.”

After playing for the Michigan Wolverines, Gardner had a pair of offseason stints with the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2015. Then, as a newcomer in the X League, it took time to find out what Japanese players are capable of doing.

“I think it was kind of a learning experience,” Gardner said. “I just learned the type of plays we have, and running plays our players are capable of. So overall, it was a learning experience.”

Gardner thinks he played well in his first year in Japan, and intends to continue to do so, while helping “everybody else get better” this season.

According to Gardner, Rise head coach Takayuki Sunaga sets a goal for his team to play at the level of the American players, including Gardner.

But at the same time, Gardner insists “football is football” regardless of where he competes.

With one season in Japan already under his belt, Gardner now has a better idea of how his teammates can play, and he has confidence in them.

The stat sheets have proven Gardner has gotten accustomed to the Japanese game and his teammates. Early last season, roughly half of his pass completions were to Jeremy Gallon, another former Wolverine, but the ratio decreased as the season progressed.

“That was more like a comfort, because I knew exactly what (Gallon) was going to do, usually, and I knew what he was capable of. It’d be more comfortable throwing the ball (to him),” said Gardner, who finished second in the league with 1,429 passing yards and tied for seventh in rushing with 349 in 2016. “And toward the end, I got a chance to throw to different receivers. It was kind of easier because I knew them more.”

Gardner competed 62.0 percent of his passes while racking up 14 touchdowns, passing and rushing. He threw nine interceptions last year.

Sunaga embraces the fact that his quarterback will rely on more receivers as pass targets. He added that while Gallon could “hit home runs,” when Gardner was too dependent on him, it could lead to “strikeouts” because it was too predictable for their opponents.

“So it’s important for us to play with better balance,” said Sunaga, a former quarterback himself. “With that said, (Gardner) was relying on Gallon when we were in trouble, but now he’s got to communicate with Japanese (players). Plus, he’s gotten more familiar with (Japanese football). So overall, we’ve improved.”

Meanwhile, Gardner has gone through another type of adjustment since arriving in Japan.

This one is away from the field.

Because unlike back home, he isn’t recognized as much in Japan, where football remains a minor sport.

Gardner said that people sometimes stare at him, but he’s not sure if they recognize him or not.

“Probably because I’m a giant, bigger than everybody else. That’s mostly why I think,” said the man with a 193-cm, 100-kg frame. “But I had a couple of people, like maybe in Shibuya, like at H&M, they come up to me like, ‘Hey, you are. . .’ That’s pretty cool, to be all the way on this side of the world and people recognize you and stuff like that. So I enjoy that. But it doesn’t happen like in Sagamihara, no.

“It’s cool. At Michigan, my last year, it was kind of overwhelming. People just coming up to you, and you can’t really walk around as a normal person all the time.”

Gardner said he hasn’t set a goal in terms of what sort of a record his team will post, but expects the Rise to be “in every game.”

Nojima Sagamihara acquired two more former Michigan players in defensive lineman Mario Ojemudia and running back Sione Houma over the summer.

The addition of Houma to the offensive line should take some of the burden off Gardner in the running game. Sunaga said the Rise coaching staff believes Houma’s effectivenss will be a factor in the team’s performance.

“Hopefully, we win them all,” Gardner said. “But I know for sure we’re going to be in every single game, just because we’re a lot better than last year and last year (it was) was pretty tough for other teams to beat us.”