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Dantonio picks Cousins to start opener

Andrew Mouranie

Well, that was anticlimactic.

On Tuesday, during Mark Dantonio’s first weekly press conference, the third-year head coach ended all the offseason drama by naming redshirt sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins his starter when the Spartans open the season on Saturday against Montana State at Spartan Stadium.

Don’t consider me one of those surprised by this decision.

I have been asked throughout the day what my reaction was when I heard Cousins had been picked over fellow redshirt sophomore Keith Nichol and to be honest, I expected it and didn’t read too much into it as well.

After Brian Hoyer graduated, both returning quarterbacks knew there would be a fierce competition for the starting job in 2009. Cousins, who was able to prove himself in some high-profile games a year ago, was tabbed as the one who was not as physically gifted as his counterpart, but had a better understanding of the offense and would be less prone to making a mistake. Nichol, the transfer from Oklahoma and spent 2008 on the MSU scout team, had the big arm, excellent mobility but would sometimes press the issue (a.k.a. force ball into coverage, run too often, etc.)

Throughout the spring and fall practice, both quarterbacks performed at a very high level and made the decision a difficult one for the coaching staff. The coaches had repeatedly said that the separation between the two signal callers had been scarce and that neither had really taken the bull by the horns. That, in no way, was a slam or a negative on their performance, but testaments to how well both guys were doing.

However, if there was really nothing in the spring or the fall that really changed the minds of the coaching staff as to whom should be the starter, then the choice to me came as no surprise.

As I covered MSU football in 2008, usually one of the first questions during a postgame press conference was about the play of Hoyer. He, admittingly, struggled in certain games and was not as efficient as he was in 2007. But, never once, did Dantonio question his quarterback or badmouth his play. Why? Because he ran the system. He knew his role last year was to take the snap, turn around and hand it to #23. In 2007, when he had All-Big Ten WR Devin Thomas, he threw it around more often. But most importantly, in both seasons, Hoyer rarely made that one big mistake to cost his team the victory. Dantonio loved that. Even though he was brought to MSU by John L. Smith, Hoyer was Dantonio’s guy. He ran the offense the way Dantonio wanted his quarterback to do so and never complained. He had no problem giving the spotlight to Javon Ringer. He led his team to back-to-back bowl games.

Anything starting to click in here? Cousins is Hoyer 2.0. He had the full two years to learn from the now-New England Patriot and witness first-hand how to be a successful quarterback under Dantonio. He is well aware of what Dantonio and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell are looking for from the guy under center and Cousins has transformed into that guy. He is more than willing to hand the ball off. He showed last year he is very effective as play-action pass. But maybe more importantly, he doesn’t force/rush things. Ding, ding ding… we have a winner.

If Cousins is Hoyer 2.0, then Nichol is more… Drew Stanton 2.0. Trust me, there is nothing wrong with that (Stanton is still beloved in East Lansing). However, in his quarterbacks, Dantonio would rather go safe than special (at least for now). Don’t get me wrong, Nichol will play. He will play a lot. He is scheduled to play during the first half on Saturday. Hell, he might even be the full-time starter in a couple weeks when MSU travels to South Bend. But, the outcome to this QB question that has been lingering for months and months really should not have surprised anyone. As long as Nichol didn’t distance himself and/or Cousins didn’t get hurt, the chances Keith would be the first guy under center against Montana State were slim to none.

The other publicized position battle sort of ended on Tuesday as well when Dantonio named redshirt freshman Caulton Ray and true freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper as the three running backs who will get the majority of the carries on Saturday.

No kidding, Mark.

Let’s examine. Javon Ringer ran the ball 1 million times last season. Andre Anderson was second in carries with 40. So, throughout the entire season, not one running back was good enough to even get Javon’s mop-up work. That spells like a recipe for a freshman to instantly contribute this season.

The proof was in the pudding in this competition. Ray shined throughout the spring and has continued in fall camp. The two true freshmen have impressed from the minute they stepped on campus. However, unlike Cousins, these three guys have never played in a college game before. So it could be a wait-and-see approach, however, if there is a position that is primed for freshmen contributors, it is running back.

On a side note, if you scroll down, I do have all three of those running backs in my ‘Spartan Sleepers’ article… I guess every blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes.