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Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Michigan State likes its options at quarterback

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol didn't make things any easier on their coaches in the spring game.

Not only did the two candidates for Michigan State's starting quarterback spot pace one another in Saturday's Green-White scrimmage, the two sophomores put up the exact same spectacular numbers: 357 pass yards and four touchdowns.

And that's exactly why Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio is in no rush to name a leader in the race to replace two-year starter Brian Hoyer.

 
  Matthew Emmons/US PRESSWIRE
  Kirk Cousins saw action in five games last season.

"I don't want to have a quarterback controversy, but I also want to provide equal opportunity for everybody involved," Dantonio said. "I don't want it to be, 'He played well one time, so he's the guy.' What we're building for is consistency and performance over the long term."

In a sport that demands decisiveness, Dantonio and his assistants feel no pressure or panic about beginning preseason camp with Cousins and Nichol neck-and-neck for the top job. Earlier this month Dantonio said the competition could last all the way through nonconference play.

Who knows? Michigan State might end up with a two-quarterback system come Sept. 5.

"I'm fine with that," offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said. "I've done that at a couple places. You've got to have a plan for both, but it can definitely be done. I'm flexible. If they're both being productive, it's hard to keep them out."

The lack of clarity this spring has been exciting rather than discouraging for the Spartans.

"It's actually a fun competition to have," junior wide receiver Mark Dell said. "Neither one of them really has a down day."

Cousins owns a slight edge in experience after serving as Hoyer's backup last fall.

He appeared in five games and executed well on short and intermediate throws, completing 74.4 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and an interception. Cousins led scoring drives against both Ohio State and Penn State and directed a good series against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

Nichol arrives with more hype after transferring from Oklahoma.

A one-time Michigan State commit who switched to Oklahoma after coach John L. Smith was fired, Nichol drew comparisons to former Spartans standout Drew Stanton in high school and brings versatility to the backfield. He returned to Michigan State after being slotted behind some Bradford guy in Norman.

"They're both sophomores, and that's a positive thing," Dantonio said. "They've got a lot of football to play, they've had a lot of football under their belts."

He points his hand at a 45-degree angle.

"I think their careers are going to go whoosh, like that."

Playing football might be the easiest part of Cousins' college experience. He's pre-med at Michigan State and follows a five-year plan of rigorous academic study.

The dreaded organic chemistry series is on his plate this summer, and after a recent practice, he rushed off to meet with his tutor.

"I took anatomy and physiology last fall, two separate classes," Cousins said. "I knew it was going to be a tough road, and I'm just going to go down it and see where it takes me. The coaches have been good working with me, working around labs and that kind of thing.

"This is what I want to do, and I'm going to do the work to get there."

Not surprisingly, the mental demands of playing quarterback don't overwhelm Cousins, but the sophomore needed to improve his body after last season. He has added about five pounds to check in at around 200, and he wants to get up to 205 by the season.

 
  AP Photo/Al Goldis
  Keith Nichol hasn't appeared in a game since September 2007.

Cousins also trimmed several hundredths of a second off his 40 time, which was clocked at 4.8 seconds during the winter.

"He's a perfectionist," Dantonio said. "He wants to do everything very, very well. That's a good thing, but you also have to realize as you go through things that life's not perfect and there's going to be times where you're going to have to adjust. He understands that."

Nichol is a bit sturdier at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, but he has been challenged to grasp the Spartans' offense after spending most of last year running the scout team. He would sit in on the offensive meetings and take a snap or two with the unit during practices, but he didn't get a real chance to absorb the system until this spring.

"I get to go in there and learn something, and then I get to see Kirk do it," Nichol said. "I get to learn from his mistakes, my mistakes, what he does good, what I do well. Every day's a learning process for me.

"I'm going to try and use every snap as an opportunity to show [the coaches] that all their recruitment, all the effort, was worth it."

Cousins looked poised and efficient last fall, and Treadwell had no reservations about sending him into games to replace Hoyer. For Nichol, who hasn't appeared in a game since September 2007, the polishing process takes a little longer.

"When you think about quarterbacks, you hear so much about footwork, footwork," Treadwell said. "The athleticism he already has, so if anything, we're sharpening up those fundamental skills to make him more of an efficient passer."

Much like the impulse to name a starter, there's also a temptation to categorize the two quarterbacks. Cousins has been pigeonholed as the pure pocket passer with textbook mechanics, while Nichol is known for his feet and playmaking ability.

But Treadwell doesn't think he's making a choice between two polar opposites.

"Some people may assume Keith is more East and West and maybe Kirk's more of the passer, but really they both do both things pretty decently," he said.

Dantonio caused a mini stir earlier this spring when he said, somewhat jokingly, that Michigan State was installing the G option with the offense. Though Cousins claims the option is "by no means our foundation," both he and Nichol ran some option at a recent practice.

Cousins showed good speed on one scramble, took a hit and popped back up, pumping his fist.

"I believe I can make plays with my legs," Cousins said. "I don
't have a lack of confidence there. But the top quarterbacks in the NFL, the Tom Bradys, the Peyton Mannings, are there because of what they do with the football throwing, the decisions they make between their ears. So I know most importantly, I need to be smart with the football and lead the offense more than anything."

After using a no-frills offense built around All-American Javon Ringer and the power run last season, Michigan State likely will open things up this fall.

"They allow you the opportunity to be creative, within reason," Treadwell said. "[When] you've got a couple of QBs like this who are fleet of foot and can throw on the run and whatnot, it does provide some more opportunities to change up things.

"They are very flexible."