Handicapping the 2013 Michigan State Spartans Quarterback Race

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Handicapping the 2013 Michigan State Spartans Quarterback Race

In 2013, the Michigan State Spartans have high expectations coming off a disappointing 2012 campaign. First and foremost of their problems comes at the quarterback position.

I was not always convinced that the quarterback battle in 2013 was a legitimate battle. I have since changed my opinion. Mark Dantonio has gone to great lengths to make it very visible both outside the program and inside the program to demonstrate that the battle to be under center for the Spartans in 2013 is up for grabs.

I recently asked Dantonio about the QB battle. Is it a battle in talk only or is it legit? He told me, “Everybody has a fair chance. Absolutely. That’s why we go to an August camp. If they weren’t getting a chance, if I wasn’t saying it was completely open, we wouldn’t have gone live last spring. We need to create, we need to do things better at that position, just like we need to do other things better at other positions.”

Andrew Maxwell will come into the 2013 season as the starter when camp starts. Coming off the heels of that game winning drive at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Arizona, Connor Cook will be in hot pursuit of the starter’s jersey.

After redshirting in 2012, Tyler O’Connor comes into his redshirt freshman year with a lot of promise. In all of my years around football, O’Connor was the best high school quarterback that I have ever personally witnessed. Coming off an impressive spring practice, he showed signs of flash and swagger, not seen in the Spartan Nation since Drew Stanton was leading the green and white.

Damion Terry enters 2013 as a true freshman. Spartan Nation first reported several months ago that Mark Dantonio’s excitement has raised eyebrows among his coaching staff as perhaps the most excited he has ever been over a single recruit.

Dantonio has made it very clear that starting a true freshman at quarterback is not an option he embraces, nor finds comforting. Although he has not said Damion Terry is not a viable option to be the Spartans starting signal caller, it is very clear that this is his stance. I know a lot of people are enamored with Terry and his skills, but he will not be your starting QB when the season starts.

Terry’s skills are amazing, but he physically has to gain strength to play the way he does at this level. That is not an indictment on talent; that is a statement of reality.

I have reported previously of a conversation I had with a member of Spartan football on the field after the win at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. That person told me, “Just think, our best quarterback didn’t even play today, he’s redshirting.”

As stated previously, O’Connor showed many people inside the program flashes of Drew Stanton; both in the good qualities and the bad. O’Connor’s tendency to make big plays out of broken ones, but to also make mistakes makes him exciting and draining. He is a gunslinger that brings tremendous athleticism to the field, with a high football I.Q. and a great sense for the game. Coming into camp, he is clearly the number three option to win the quarterback job at Michigan State. But don’t mistake that saying, I do not believe where he starts camp is indicative of where he’ll end up when his career is over.

O’Connor is a stud, but just like a 16 year old driving a Lamborghini, he has a lot of power and athleticism most young men do not have. O’Connor is still growing into his body and fully understanding how incredibly blessed he is with the God given skills and what he can do on a gridiron.

Having no college experience with live game reps, he will not be your starter when the season begins. Dantonio has made it very abundantly clear he does not want a quarterback without playing experience starting under center. With that being said and understood, when the curtain closes on 2013 I would not be shocked if O’Connor was your starting quarterback.

That means the legitimate battle to be the number one Michigan State football signal caller when the first game of the season takes place against Western Michigan University is really between Connor Cook and Andrew Maxwell.

Dantonio evaluated the state of the Michigan State position saying, “When you’re evaluating somebody there’s gonna be some things that are tangible and some things that are intangible, subjective. You’ve gotta do the very best you can to weigh it all out. Like I said before, you just wanna be consistent and you just wanna be fair. If we can do that… I don’t care who plays…it’s on them. That’s why they come to school. It’s on them to play. So, we’re where we’re at right now. As I said yesterday, our quarterback situation is much stronger than it was last year. Really, when you look at it, it’s probably as strong as it’s ever been in terms of the number of quality players at that position. I think we’re four deep with legitimate guys who can throw the ball at a high level and are major college quarterbacks. When you look back to, I guess, 2008, 2007, we had Nick Foles, we had Cousins, we had Brian Hoyer, Keith Nichol comes in on that spring. So four pretty good quarterbacks there. One of them left but they were all still good quarterbacks.”

So who will it be? Andrew Maxwell has the experience that Dantonio craves. Coming out of the spring, the battle between Maxwell and Cook was close. One NFL general manager told me after the spring, “If the battle is close between a fifth year senior and a third year sophomore it isn’t close.”

That being said, while others seem to be willing to throw Maxwell out like bathwater with the baby I am not. I believe it is imperative that there be a true and open competition. Mark Dantonio admitted to me in Chicago he does not care who wins the battle just simply that the best player will.

It is interesting from my perspective to have watched as the season ended the difference in mentality between the fans and the head coach. Dantonio seemed locked in on Maxwell. The fans were crying out for change and they would have taken Cook, O’Connor, or Barney the Dinosaur. As spring progressed the signs of a true battle kept emerging into what we have today.

Cook has worked his tail off this summer to prepare for the upcoming battle. Much to his credit he has avoided any and all controversy that would lend to a QB division. That does not mean he isn’t ready for a fight, it means he’s showing great maturity in preparing for it.

I have spoken before and Dantonio has taken the blame for why Maxwell was not prepared last year. The staff failed to get him meaningful reps in 2010 and 2011 and last year he had to spend time that should have been in a leadership role in a learning position. The competition of 2013 will be fun to watch. Cook has worked hard and is ready to battle and the much maligned Maxwell will benefit from the head to head daily battle.

Who starts under Center for Michigan State is yet to be determined. There is absolutely no doubt that Maxwell has more experience than Cook. That certainly gives Andrew an advantage there. Cook, however, brings a gunslinger mentality and an innate ability to make plays out of nothing.

Dantonio told me of the QB battle back in June, “My feeling is that Andrew suffered greatly last year because of not playing in 2011 very much. I think that hurt him. That hurt his experience. That hurt his level of confidence. He started out great, fast. Some things happened, where balls aren’t caught or whatever the case. That has a tendency to work on you a little bit. I think he’s refreshed, he’s experienced, he’s ready to go. He’s been able to step back and reevaluate what he’s gotta do and what he has to do physically and mentally and then I think he’s ready to go. But with that being said, the best players are gonna play and we’ve gotta have somebody ready for the 2014 season. So that means that player has to experience some reps throughout the year I think, however it shakes out. But we can’t go into a year again with a guy not experienced. I think it hurt Cousins in ’09 and I think it hurt Maxwell in 2012.”

After Dantonio made the above comment here is an interesting exchange he and I had:

Q: Based on what you just said, if camp is going along and you’re impressed with Damion Terry and think he could be in the running next year, would that mean you probably wouldn’t redshirt him? You would play him because you don’t want a QB next year with no experience?

A: Yeah. We’re gonna play the best player, we’ve always tried to do that here. One thing our players understand when they come in this room is it does not exist simply by years. Whether you’re a senior or you’re a redshirt freshman or whether you’re a true freshman or whether you’re a walk-on, you’re gonna have equal opportunity. If you’re the best player you will play. I think that’s a lot to ask for a young player. I’ve never had a freshman quarterback, and this will be my tenth year coaching. I’ve never had a freshman quarterback play. I guess we’ve never really had a redshirt freshman quarterback play. He is extremely talented. All of them bring something to the table. I think that’s the thing that I’m excited about when you look at our quarterback position. From an experience standpoint what did we have last year? Zero. Nothing. Very limited. This year we have a lot of experience back, a lot of reps, some good, some bad. We’ve got a guy that was put into the bowl game with 2 minutes to go. That’s crunch time, that’s a major experience lender I think. We’ve got a redshirt freshman who has got a lot of reps over the course of the spring. He did some good things, had a disappointing spring game, but there was area for growth there. We’ve got a very talented freshman coming in. So we’ve got more numbers, top to bottom more experience, top to bottom I feel more ability maybe more than we’ve ever had here in terms of four quarterbacks, I think. Usually we’re dealing with three, I think. Sometimes two.

Mark Dantonio is fond of saying that a quarterback impacts a game in three distinct ways. The first is with their mind; their ability to think on their feet and create. The second way that a quarterback impacts a football game is with their arm. Some quarterbacks do not have strong arms and some do; the question is do they know the strengths and weaknesses of that arm and how to use it to make plays. And finally, the third way a quarterback impacts a game is with his feet.

When you analyze the first way quarterbacking impacts the game, their mind, Cook and Maxwell both possess a high football IQ. Last season we saw from Maxwell almost a fear of failure. Whereas Cook took out a mentality of let’s just go make a play. Although at times it wasn’t sexy, Cook made those plays when he had to, such as in the final game winning drive at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartan coaches have spent a significant amount of time this off season talking to Maxwell about allowing his high football intelligence to override being risk averse.

In 2013 I expect Maxwell to make the plays that last year he allowed to go by because of a fear of failure. If that is the case, combined with Maxwell’s experience, I give him the advantage in this area. If Andrew cannot overcome a fear of making a mistake, Connor Cook will dominate him in this first area of analysis.

The second area of analysis is in the ability of a quarterback to impact the game with his arm. If Connor Cook has a biggest weakness, it is in accuracy. Clearly, Maxwell has an advantage in that category. However, if Maxwell is gripped with the overwhelming mentality of avoiding mistake rather than making plays, he nullifies his advantage with the big accurate arm. What Connor Cook lacks in accuracy he makes up for with the mentality that there isn’t a throw on the field he doesn’t think he can make.

I know of four times last season on a key third down where Maxwell rolled out, had a chance down field. It wasn’t ideal, but threw the ball away rather than take the chance. A 70 -yard interception is as good as a punt. He needed to take those risks. Those aren’t game killers. Those missed chances drove coaches crazy.

When judging this second area of impact that Mark Dantonio will be watching coming into 2013 camp, this is the area that both young men are the most competitive. It also is the area where they are the most different. That is why I believe it is this second criterion that will determine who the starting quarterback is in 2013. Will it be Maxwell with a big accurate arm unwilling to take some risks or will it be O’Connor and his less accurate arm but willing to take chances? This could be a battle for the ages.

And finally, we look at the third area that Mark Dantonio will be watching and that is a quarterback’s feet. There is no doubt that Connor Cook is exceptionally athletic. Lost in all the talk about Cook’s athletic ability is the fact that anyone who saw Maxwell play in high school is very well aware he also is exceptionally athletic. That is why last year I was dumbfounded when repeatedly throughout the season Andrew passed up exceptional opportunities to create plays with his feet.

Who knows what happened? If the Andrew Maxwell of last year tries to play the same way in 2013, he will quickly find himself sitting on the bench next to Dantonio. If the Maxwell that we all saw in high school returns for the 2013 season, Connor Cook’s bid to be the starting quarterback could be in jeopardy.

There is absolutely no doubt that Connor Cook is young but has the moxie, confidence, and ability to lead this football team. He will beat the Andrew Maxwell of 2012 to be the starter of the 2013 team. But I am not so sure that with the changes in the offense and the mindset of Maxwell, that Connor can beat the Maxwell of old.

I have heard of many people refer to this year’s battle for the quarterback job in reference to the 2009 battle. I disagree. I think this one is even bigger and more exciting. Get ready Spartan Nation, only a few days away until the pads come on and the battle for the MSU signal caller begins for real.