Big Ten: Brian Hoyer

B1G QBs fare well in Sunday's NFL games

September, 15, 2014
We interrupt your regular feeling of Big Ten doom-and-gloom to bring you a positive conference announcement for once.

Sorry, B1G fans, it has nothing to do with this current college football season ... which probably doesn't come as a surprise. But at least it's something, right? In the NFL on Sunday, the Big Ten fared pretty darn well -- specifically at quarterback:


Let me help you out with the names since two of these players aren't regular starters: First, of course, you have New England's Tom Brady (Michigan) with a win against Minnesota. And you have the names that should make Spartans fans smile: Washington's Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) against Jacksonville, Cleveland's Brian Hoyer (Michigan State) against New Orleans, and Arizona's Drew Stanton (Michigan State) against the New York Giants.

Stanton and Cousins were both filling in because of injuries to the regular starter. But Cousins performed so well he might start a quarterback controversy once Robert Griffin III returns, and Stanton sparked a fourth-quarter comeback.


Granted, it's possible -- possible -- that only Brady will still be starting by year's end. But it's positive news for now, and the Big Ten does still have some current talent at the position.

One AFC veteran scout recently called Penn State's Christian Hackenberg the "top QB in college football." And, as long as Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller returns as planned, the Big Ten should once again boast at least one Heisman front-runner.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. It might not have been a good weekend for the Big Ten (again), but at least the conference had a good showing in the NFL. At least it's something.
Urban Meyer couldn't believe it.

Meyer hasn't spent his entire career in the Big Ten, but the Ohio State coach has a pretty good handle on the quarterback landscape in college football. Informed last month that a Big Ten quarterback hadn't been selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995, Meyer's jaw dropped.

"You're kidding me? Wow," he said. "That shouldn't be. Man, there hasn’t been a first-rounder? [Terrelle] Pryor probably would have been. Well, Tom Brady should have been. I never ...

"You've got me shocked."

Even a few questions later, Meyer couldn't get past the flabbergasting factoid.

"Wow," he said. "Twenty years?"

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPerhaps in a couple of years, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg will be the quarterback who breaks a 20-year drought for Big Ten passers in the first round of the NFL draft.
Unfortunately, Meyer's standout quarterback, Braxton Miller, won't end the streak this year because of injury. Miller would have led a Big Ten quarterback corps that looks strong but still lacks the star power found in the Pac-12 and elsewhere.

Several factors have contributed to the Big Ten's downturn, but quarterback play belongs high on the list. The league hasn't had an All-American quarterback since 2006, when Ohio State's Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy. Only one Big Ten quarterback has been selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2008. That player, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, started his career in the ACC.

"It's been awhile since the Big Ten had a top-drawer guy," former Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "An elite-type quarterback certainly would help the conference."

To be clear, a first-round designation isn't the best way or the only way to measure a conference at one position.

"So Drew Brees sucks just because he was 5-11 and three quarters and he goes Pick 32?" Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "You would never want Tom Brady, ever. He's horrible! You’ve got to take Akili Smith or somebody."

Point taken.

Brees slipped to the first pick of the second round in 2001 because of his height. Brady is among the best to ever play the position, and Wilson just helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. At least five NFL teams will start Big Ten quarterbacks this season.

But the volume isn't there.

"Drew should have been a first-round guy, but let's say he was," Tiller said. "Hell, him and Kerry Collins, for cryin' out loud? That's a long time [without more]."

The Big Ten doesn't have as much trouble churning out elite linemen and running backs. Does the league's ground-and-pound image turn off top quarterbacks? Does the weather? Coaches say no.

"The weather is a positive," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "When the NFL scouts are going to grade these people, they want to know how they're going to play in all these different conditions."

Although many Big Ten programs use offenses that fit the league's stereotypes, those who emphasize quarterback-friendly systems can find the pieces. When Mike White came to Illinois in 1980, he brought with him two junior-college quarterbacks from California, Dave Wilson and Tony Eason. That fall, Wilson set an NCAA record with 621 yards against Ohio State. He was a first-round pick in the NFL supplemental draft in 1981. Two years later, Eason was the No. 15 overall pick, 12 spots ahead of a guy named Marino.

"I had the confidence when I hit the Big Ten that it wasn't a passing conference and I probably had an edge," said White, who coached at Illinois from 1980-87. "We proved that you could throw the ball in the Big Ten. Our kids loved it."

So did the fans. On Illinois' first play of the season, Wilson launched the ball downfield ... nowhere near his intended receiver.

"I think we got a standing ovation," White said.

Quarterback-friendly programs such as Illinois, Iowa and Purdue produced stars during that time. The Big Ten had six first-round quarterbacks between 1982-90. In 1997, Tiller arrived at Purdue and introduced a pass-driven spread offense. Brees began shattering league records.

But those were the exceptions, not the rule. Big Ten teams have often used run-driven offenses with game-managers under center.

"More and more guys just went back to the system that they had confidence in," White said. "I don't think they came in with a passion for the forward pass and how you can make it work, so consequently, it just became Big Ten football again."

Kevin Wilson notes some Big Ten teams haven't built around the quarterback spot and that, more than weather or league reputation, might hurt the strength of the position. But things appear to be improving.

Wilson runs a fast-paced, pass-heavy spread offense at Indiana. Michigan, which has great tradition at quarterback, is back to using a pro-style offense. Michigan State has a nice run of quarterbacks with Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and now Connor Cook. Penn State returns Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2013.

"I don't think people can be fairly critical of the quarterbacks in the Big Ten," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo. "It's a pretty good group this year. Hackenberg could be the first guy taken, whenever he decides to go.

"He's a rare talent."

A few more rare talents at quarterback -- along with the right coaches and systems -- could give the Big Ten the boost it needs.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Andrew Maxwell can predict with absolute certainty at least one thing that will happen this season. No matter what he does, he will be compared to Kirk Cousins.

"I've gathered that, yeah," he says, smiling.

It's only natural. Cousins started the past three years at quarterback for Michigan State, leaving his stamp on the program as arguably the top signalcaller in school history. Now Maxwell will take over the huddle for the Spartans and try to keep the success going.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
AP Photo/Al GoldisAndrew Maxwell is expected to open the season as Michigan State's starting quarterback.
Both have much in common. They're both 6-foot-3. They're both very good students who are eloquent in interviews. They both have strong leadership skills, and count their faith as essential parts of their being.

"They're the same kind of people," Michigan State left tackle Dan France said. "Andrew is just like Kirk back there."

Yet Maxwell is his own person and player. He has learned a lot by serving as Cousins' understudy, but he will not simply provide a carbon copy for the Spartans.

"I can't let the comparisons overwhelm me," he said. "I can't get too caught up in trying to be Kirk's replacement. I just have to focus on being Andrew Maxwell, on being the starting quarterback for Michigan State."

Maxwell sprained his right knee in a scrimmage 10 days ago, and will miss the rest of the spring. The injury is not considered serious, however, and Michigan State has every expectation that Maxwell will start the season opener.

When he does, it will be the culmination of a long waiting process for the fourth-year junior. He was an Elite 11 quarterback in high school who came to Michigan State after Brian Hoyer completed his career. Cousins and Keith Nichol were competing for the starting job that year, so Maxwell knew he might have to sit for a while. A while ended up lasting three years.

"It was something I prepared myself for when I committed," he says. "But I don't know if I actually knew how long three years was."

Many players with his talent would have looked to transfer or sulked about playing time. Maxwell did neither.

"He's an extremely patient young man," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "There's never been a feeling of entitlement or a need to be playing from him. He's never once come in and said, 'I need reps, I need this, I need that.'"

Instead, Maxwell bided his time on the sidelines, trying to soak up as much knowledge as he could.

"Everything I learned from watching Kirk in the games -- the mistakes he made on the field, the good things he did -- I could learn all that from a distance," he said. "Whereas those are things I would have had to learn the hard way if I had played as a younger player, making mistakes on the fly. Instead, I made those mistakes kind of in the dark behind Kirk.

"I'm not saying I'm not going to make mistakes. But I have gained a lot of learning experiences from sitting."

For all their similarities, there are some key differences between Maxwell and Cousins.

Maxwell is a little more athletic than Cousins. He was a high jumper in high school, at one point clearing 6 feet, 7 inches. Which basically means he jumped over William Gholston, though he's not apt to try that in practice. ("I don't know if the Fosbury Flop would work as well against Will," he jokes).

That extra mobility means Michigan State can do a few different things with Maxwell.

"I think he can extend plays," offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said. "I don't know that he's a guy we can run a lot of option football with, but he can get out of the pocket, move around, extend a play and keep his eyes downfield. He can make a throw on the move, but he'll also look to run it."

Cousins was as comfortable delivering keynote addresses as he was screen passes. Maxwell isn't quite as outgoing, so he's had to work on that. As soon as last season ended, he said, he tried to assert himself vocally during winter conditioning. He's been around the team long enough that he was easily accepted.

"You can tell he's been studying his playbook for four years," center Travis Jackson said. "His knowledge of the game is incredible, and the way he comes out and leads the team is really exciting."

The Spartans won't dumb down the offense any with Maxwell at the helm. Dantonio says Maxwell is "fully functional" and can execute everything that Cousins did. The drawbacks for him are a lack of game experience and a young receiving corps that might need some time to find its sea legs.

So the early comparisons to Cousins might not be fair. But while they are inevitable, they are not insurmountable. Maxwell looks ready to make this team his own.

Big Ten did you know? Week 2

September, 9, 2011
Some notes and nuggets to hopefully make you smarter as you head out to the games this weekend.
  • Penn State's 23-game nonconference home winning streak is tied for second-longest in the nation with Florida. LSU leads at 31. The Nittany Lions' last nonconference loss in Beaver Stadium was to Boston College on Sept. 6, 2003.
  • Wisconsin accumulated 499 yards of total offense on just 53 plays against UNLV, averaging 9.42 yards per play. That was the second best mark in the country, behind only Georgia Tech’s 10.34 yards per play against Western Carolina. The Badgers have scored at least 37 points in the first half in each of their past three home games. In its past six home games, Wisconsin has combined to score 346 points. That is an average of 57.7 points per game.
  • Michigan had a plus-3 turnover margin against Western Michigan in Saturday's season-opening win, the first time the Wolverines won the turnover battle since Sept. 11, 2010, when they were plus-3 at Notre Dame.
  • With the 42-0 win against Akron last Saturday, Luke Fickell became the first Ohio State head coach to record a shutout in his head-coaching debut since Woody Hayes in 1951.
  • Tackle Tyler Moore last week became first true freshman offensive lineman to start a season opener in Nebraska history, and just the fourth freshman offensive lineman to earn a start in Nebraska's season opener, joining redshirt freshmen Jeremiah Sirles (2010 vs. Western Kentucky), Marcel Jones (2008 vs. Western Michigan) and Richie Incognito (2002 vs. Arizona State). Moore is only the fourth true freshman offensive lineman to start a game at any point in a season, and only the 10th true freshman offensive lineman to play at Nebraska.
  • Illinois was penalty-free in the opener, marking the first time in 18 years it did not commit a penalty in a game. The last time it happened was Nov. 20, 1993, against Wisconsin. Illinois is one of just three FBS teams that did not get flagged in the opening week (Eastern Michigan and Navy).
  • Iowa has held its opponents to two touchdown passes or fewer in 35 straight games. The Hawkeyes' defense has collected at least one takeaway in 57 of its last 63 games, dating back to 2006.
  • Minnesota came from behind in all six of its victories in 2009 and all three in 2010. The last time the Gophers won a game without trailing was a 17-6 win at Purdue on Oct. 25, 2008.
  • After spending much of 2010 searching for a consistent running attack, Northwestern has now surpassed 200 yards rushing in back-to-back contests for the first time since the final two games of 2003. NU totaled 229 ground yards in the TicketCity Bowl to close last season and went for 227 Saturday against Boston College.
  • With 222 passing yards against Youngstown State, Michigan State senior quarterback Kirk Cousins became just the fourth Spartans quarterback to eclipse the 6,000-yard mark, joining Jeff Smoker (8,932 yards), Drew Stanton (6,524 yards) and Brian Hoyer (6,159 yards). Cousins also moved into a tie for fifth place at Michigan State for most touchdown passes (42) as he threw an 18-yard strike to B.J. Cunningham in the third quarter. Cousins now has 6,037 career passing yards and his completion percentage of .648 is currently the best in team history and third in Big Ten history.
  • After rushing for 201 yards in the opener against Middle Tennessee, Purdue improved to 7-1 under coach Danny Hope when eclipsing the 200-yard rushing mark. Purdue racked up 200 rush yards or more in all four victories last season.
  • Ten true freshmen saw action for Indiana in the opener against Ball State, the most for an IU squad since 11 took the field during the 2003 campaign. Indiana only played eight true freshmen from 2007-10.

Big Ten lunch links

October, 14, 2010
Teach me how to Bucky.
After some TiVo issues over the weekend, I finally got a chance to review the Big Ten Network's preview of Michigan State. The crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith watched two practices in East Lansing early in camp.

Here are some notes and observations:
  • Although the preview only showed the day's second practice, which took place in shoulder pads and shorts and didn't feature much team work, it was an interesting session to watch. Michigan State runs some good one-on-one drills where you can see an individual player's strengths and weaknesses.
  • Offensive line and secondary are two of the Spartans' biggest question marks entering the season, and both groups had their moments. J'Michael Deane looked very impressive in drills, executing a pancake block against a defender in the half line drill. DiNardo liked what he saw from center John Stipek and guard Chris McDonald, while Griffith was impressed with left tackle D.J. Young. The analysts feel Michigan State can replace three starters up front, but the right side of the line is a bit iffy and depth might be a problem.
  • After watching the show and talking with Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi earlier today, I think the secondary will be younger but better this fall. Michigan State allowed far too many touchdowns and recorded far too few interceptions in 2009. But the cornerback spot should be better as Johnny Adams rejoins the mix. Both DiNardo and Griffith like Michigan State's freshman defensive backs: Mylan Hicks, Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond. "He's picked up the defense, and I think you’ll see him early in the season," DiNardo said of Hicks.
  • DiNardo likes the depth at cornerback but isn't at confident about the safety spot after Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde.
  • Freshman running back Le'Veon Bell looked very impressive in drills and gained a big fan in Griffith. Although projected starter Larry Caper is no slouch at 5-foot-11, 220, Bell just looks bigger on the field. His best work came in a pass-blocking drill against the linebackers, and he also showed a nice sidestep in a one-on-one edge rushing drill. "Tremendous pass-blocker as a freshman," Griffith said. "He can flat-out play. I would not be surprised if he ends up being the starter for this offense. He's the total package." When Revsine reminded Griffith about Caper and Edwin Baker, Griffith replied, "[Bell] gives you something that those two don't." Baker, to his credit, showed great wheels in the edge rushing drill.
  • The linebackers had their ups and downs. Heralded incoming freshman William Gholston bowled over fullback Adam Setterbo in a drill and the analysts marveled at his frame. But DiNardo added, "You can tell he's just getting started." In a pass-rush drill, the running backs seemed to get the better of the 'backers, even starters Greg Jones, Eric Gordon and Chris Norman. Redshirt freshman linebacker Denicos Allen, who earned praise from Griffith for his play, had a nice move against running back Nick Hill.
  • Like me, the BTN analysts love Michigan State's depth at both wide receiver and tight end and say the offense should allow them to be featured with reverses and other plays. Receiver B.J. Cunningham looked good on a seam route, and DiNardo wondered how the Spartans' defensive coaches haven't stolen 285-pound sophomore tight end Dion Sims for their side of the ball. "He's a biggin," Griffith said.
  • Quarterback Kirk Cousins told the BTN crew about having "a license to lead" this year as the clear-cut starter. He also has been talking to his MSU predecessor, New England Patriots reserve quarterback Brian Hoyer, about being more mobile. Hoyer's answer: Be like Tom Brady. "[Hoyer] says Tom may not be the fastest guy, but he may be the most mobile quarterback in the NFL because he can avoid the pass rush so well just by sliding one way or the other," Cousins said.
  • Aside from tackle Jerel Worthy, the BTN crew wasn't wowed by the defensive line and said Michigan State must scheme its way to more pressure without blitzing a bunch of linebackers.
  • Head coach Mark Dantonio said the place-kicking situation remains unsettled.
  • DiNardo said the key for Michigan State is a strong start in a favorable schedule. Griffith predicts the Spartans to win nine or 10 games. "I think the momentum is starting to come back," DiNardo said.

Big Ten mailblog

January, 5, 2010
The FedEx Orange Bowl is finally here!

Please join me and ACC blogger Heather Dinich (who's in South Florida) tonight in the Virtual PressBox to discuss the game. We'll get started at 8 p.m. ET.

Kyle from Columbia, S.C., writes: Love the blog, Adam. As great as Bill Martin has been for Michigan, by raising cash and expanding the programs in important places, how do you think David Brandon will compare as the new AD?

Adam Rittenberg: Brandon looks like a strong hire for Michigan, Kyle. He has been about as involved in Michigan athletics as you can be without being an employee. He knows how to raise funds. As a successful CEO, he knows how to delegate responsibility and surround himself with good people. Brandon fits the mold of the new athletic director in college sports, someone who didn't necessarily spend their career in athletics, but has a connection to an institution and had success in other areas (business, law). You see similar guys at Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue. Being an AD of a major department like Michigan is a lot like being a CEO, a role Brandon clearly understands. His biggest challenge will be uniting Michigan fans around a struggling football program. He talked today about how there's no place for factions and divisiveness around the program, and as a Michigan man, he can unite people. But he also can't feed into the old guard that seems dead set against Rich Rodriguez.

JJ from Madison, Wis., writes: Hey Adam. How about that Rose Bowl!? I was hoping to get your opinion on a college football playoff. In my opinion, the best part of college football is the fact that there ISN'T a playoff. I don't see how anyone as a true fan could be in favor. The beauty of college football is that half the decent teams can finish the season with a bowl win and feel decent about their season; while also giving all the fans a chance to vacation, party, and route for their favorite team. As an Ohio State grad, a national championship would be perfect, but I can still feel great about the season and had an absolutely awesome time in Southern California (I'm probably remembering it even better than it was now that I'm back in Wisconsin). What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: I respect your opinion, JJ, and it's one shared by a lot of folks around the Big Ten. I'm in favor of keeping the bowl system and using a small playoff (four or eight teams). A bunch of teams would still finish the season with wins, and fans could, for the most part, plan their bowl trips in advance. It's definitely a tricky situation, but we demand clear definition from our sports, and college football doesn't really give us that each year. After being in California for Rose Bowl week, I see how special it is for players and fans. You might lose that with a playoff system, but something like a plus-one format probably doesn't take too much away.

Adam from Hershey, Pa., writes: Adam,I'm sure you are busy preparing for the Orange bowl, but when you have a moment, can you address my question: Was Chip Kelly's statement that "Terrelle beat us (Oregon)" a cop out? From what I watched, it was not just Terrelle, but a whole team effort...not to take anything away from Terrelle incredible performance.

Adam Rittenberg: No, definitely not a cop out, Adam. Kelly acknowledged other areas of Ohio State's performance that contributed to the win, like the way the Buckeyes contained Jeremiah Masoli. But he was also admitting the obvious, and Terrelle Pryor played a huge role in Ohio State's win, especially with his clutch third-down passes.

Dave from Saginaw, Mich., writes: Adam, now seeing how Michigan State's season played out, do you think they were a little overrated coming into the season? I hate to say this in hindsight, but in the beginning of the season I didn't really believe they'd live up to the expectations. Not just because of the "same old sparty" mentality which Dantonio seems to have eliminated to some extent, but because we lost Javon Ringer and Brian Hoyer, Otis Wiley, and many other excellent starters on both sides of the ball. Coming in to the season I didn't really expect them to be competing for any kind of title.

Adam Rittenberg: Dave, you bring up some good points about the players Michigan State lost. I remember being concerned about the Spartans' line play on both sides of the ball after seeing them in spring practice. You knew there was youth in the offensive backfield, but for the most part, Kirk Cousins and the running backs did OK. The wide receivers were a pleasant surprise. The secondary was a major disappointment, any way you slice it. Mark Dantonio talked up this group throughout the preseason, and they really let him down. Wiley definitely was a major loss. And neither line was particularly great, as I had feared. Still, I think Michigan State is in pretty decent shape heading into 2010.

Scott from the Quad Cities writes: Adam,I appreciate your work on the blog. There have been many interesting articles many of which I have commented on myself. I'd just like to ask you: "Why all the love for Iowa?" Do we really need 6 articles on them over three days? I know the Orange Bowl is coming, but there are other items to report on, i.e. finishing up the recap of the best case / worst case series. Honestly, there are very few people outside the state of Iowa that care about the Hawkeyes and are tired of all the attention you have paid to them all year long. Can you change the subject and give some attention to other teams?

Adam Rittenberg: I just can't win, can I, Scott? Last week, I was writing too much about Ohio State. Now I'm writing too much about Iowa. Here's the deal. There are certain times of the year when the blog will be unbalanced with the coverage, especially around BCS games. That's just the way it is. I'll still finish best case-worst case, re-rank the Big Ten's top 30 players and weigh in on recruiting. But for the past few days, Iowa has been the focus, and deservedly so.
Here's the second half of my interview with Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. For Part I, click here.

You've worked Keith Nichol in at quarterback throughout the season, and both he and Kirk [Cousins] are sophomores. Do you expect a similar pattern going forward? Will the rotation continue next year?

Mark Dantonio: That's not up to me. That's up to each individual player and how they perform. I do think that it was important this year, with both being sophomores, to provide growth. Where we go from there is up to each of our players and how they play. Obviously, there's been some separation there [with Cousins], but as I said earlier in the season, we wanted to provide growth for our football program. Coming back next year, we have two experienced quarterbacks. One has played the most, but the other one certainly has done some things as well. Kirk's played excellent, but Keith Nichol has gone in, like the Illinois game, and he's got six touchdown passes and I'm not sure exactly how many reps, but he's got that under his belt in terms of game experience. As a head football coach, you've got to make decisions and do the best you can to get your entire team ready. That's what we've tried to do. Because without that, we have no experience. We have one guy.

Last year, for example, with Brian Hoyer taking the majority of the reps, I felt like it was important to play Kirk Cousins in the bowl game. It was very important for his development. It was also important to play him in the Ohio State game, even though Brian could have come back a little bit earlier, but Kirk was doing well. I felt like it was important to give him those experiences because that would pay dividends for the future.

Switching to defense, you mentioned the consistency, has that been the issue there? You've had some good games like Iowa and Northwestern, and others where it's been more of a struggle.

Dantonio: It's consistency. The Michigan game, the Illinois game, the Northwestern game, the Iowa game, those were four straight games we played well defensively. Then we went up to Minnesota and did not play as well. Gave up the deep ball. But you've got to make a play on them, we've done that in the past, and we've got to be consistent. But you face a different offense every single week and things change for you conceptually, and defense is such a reactionary position. You're not able to go out there and say, 'OK, this is what we're going to do.' You have to adjust based on the offenses you're going to see, and sometimes the matchups are difficult. On the positive side of it, we've got 29 sacks, they've only run the ball for five touchdowns against us. Greg Jones is having a great year, a dynamic year, so there are some positives we can draw from that.

I know you've coached a lot of great defensive players. Is Greg right up there at the top, and what's his ceiling at the next level?

Dantonio: Greg Jones is one of the top defensive players I've been around. What makes him such a great player is he's extremely instinctive, which is an intangible, very instinctive, he gets off blocks and he's extremely quick. And then his effort and his intensity are so great. He believes he's not going to get blocked and he believes he has to go hard on every single play, whether that's in practice or that's in a game. There's really no difference in how he practices and how he goes about it in a game. It's 100 miles an hour. He's strong, he's tough and all those different things, he's athletic, but the thing that puts him over the edge are those intangibles.

You talked about regaining respect this month. There are still some goals out there for you. Are the guys still aware of what's still possible this season?

Dantonio: Absolutely. We're still very much aware of the things we can do as a football program. It's got to start with Purdue, though. We can't get too far in the future. The No. 1 thing is let's win six games and worry about what we can handle after that. It starts this weekend.
Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

If you need a cavity filled in the state of Michigan a few years from now, don't be surprised to see Blair White pulling up next to the dentist's chair.

 Cliff Welch/Icon SMI
 Blair White ranks fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards with 90.7 yards a game.

And rest assured, White has very steady hands. Anyone can see that from watching him catch passes for Michigan State.

The former walk-on emerged midway through the 2008 season and wound up leading the Spartans in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (659). It could have been the end of the line for White, who was admitted to the University of Detroit's School of Dentistry and had a chance to enroll this fall.

But he had one season of eligibility remaining and decided what the heck, might as well stick around. Michigan State is extremely grateful, as White once again has become the team's No. 1 wide receiver.

He ranks fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards (90.7 ypg), fifth in receptions (6.43 ypg) and third in scoring (5.1 ppg).

"It's a little different than what I had planned," White said. "It's a blessing and I'm very fortunate."

White entered last season not knowing if he'd see the field much, if at all.

He had only three catches his first two seasons and played primarily on special teams. Michigan State seemed fairly set at wide receiver with Mark Dell, Deon Curry, B.J. Cunningham and heralded freshmen Keshawn Martin and Fred Smith. About the only clue White would play a bigger role was his appearance as a co-backup with Chris L. Rucker on the preseason depth chart.

But injuries and other personnel moves -- Rucker eventually moved full-time to cornerback -- opened the door for White.

"I was able to catch some balls for us," he said. "I figured I could go to dental school any time I want, but I can only play football at Michigan State for one more year. I took advantage of that, and I'd like to think that was a wise choice, not passing that up."

Um, yeah.

White not only has become one of the Big Ten's better receivers, earning co-Offensive Player of the Week honors after recording career highs in both receptions (12) and receiving yards (186) to go along with two touchdowns in last Saturday's win against Northwestern. But he's doing it at a school that means a lot to his family.

White is the 15th person in his family to attend Michigan State. The group includes his three younger siblings, his mother, Vicki, an All-American swimmer for the Spartans, and a cousin, Jessica LeFevre, an All-American softball player.

His strong ties to Michigan State could present a problem in the future. See, White has applied to the School of Dentistry at Michigan and might end up in Ann Arbor a year from now.

White gets chided about attending Michigan "all the time," particularly from former Spartans teammate Brian Hoyer and Spartans running backs coach Dan Enos.

"It's definitely still possible," White said. "They're one of the best dental schools in the country, so I'm not just going to throw them off, even though I bleed green."
Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Kirk Cousins first started competing for Michigan State's starting quarterback spot as a senior in high school.

Less than a month after Cousins verbally committed to the Spartans, the team added another quarterback, Nick Foles, to the 2007 class. Foles eventually transferred to Arizona, but Michigan State added a quarterback transfer in Keith Nichol, who originally committed to the Spartans before switching to Oklahoma after a coaching change. Nichol quickly became Cousin's top competition when Brian Hoyer graduated.

Needless to say, Cousins is used to this. But he also knows the moment of truth is getting closer.

"I've been dealing with this now for two years, so I've been anxious for two years," Cousins said. "Another week's not going to change anything. But definitely, I understand that this is crunch time, and a lot is going to be determined September 5th and September 12th, in those first two games, as far as the direction they're going to go."

Head coach Mark Dantonio's plan all along called for both Cousins and Nichol to see the field early in the season. The quarterbacks were dead even coming out of spring ball, putting up the exact same numbers in the Green and White Game (357 pass yards, 4 TDs each).

Things have more or less remained the same in camp, with Nichol putting up better numbers in the first scrimmage and Cousins tossing the only touchdown in Friday's scrimmage at Spartan Stadium.

"What they've told us is that we will both play," Cousins said. "They believe that game experience is extremely important, and that's where a quarterback has to ultimately be evaluated. It wouldn't be fair to make an evaluation strictly off of practice and then go with a guy. [Dantonio] thinks you have to play both of the guys in a game to see what they can do in a game situation, and I would agree with that."

Nichol agrees that both he and Cousins deserve field time outside of mop-up duty, but he doesn't foresee Michigan State sticking with a two-quarterback system very long.

"They really want to pick a starter," Nichol said, "a guy who's going to lead them to a Big Ten title from now until then. ... Nobody wants to do the two-QB system. Nobody really knows who to follow, exactly. Both of us can lead, but the quarterback's a special position where only one of them gets to play. You have to be able to follow one guy specifically.

"There's no such thing as too much leadership, but at the same time, you need a guy that everybody on the offense can look to."

Dantonio is also looking beyond the decision on a starter.

He wants to make sure factions don't develop in the locker room. He also notes that both Cousins and Nichol are sophomores, so "whoever takes control of that football team needs to move that football team, because there is competition."

"The person who is going to have to really put the team first is the guy who ends up not being the starter long term," Cousins said. "They're going to have the most difficult situation. I don't think other people on the team will really take sides. But that person is obviously in a very difficult situation and has to face some adversity. The natural human emotion is it would be difficult to respond positively, but that's what one of us has to do."

Cousins and the coaches have gone through hypothetical situations of how he would react to being the backup. Nichol, meanwhile, isn't focused on the possibility of being No. 2.

"I don't think as a quarterback, you should be putting yourself in that kind of position," he said. "You always have to think you're the guy, you're the man. ... People outside ask you hypothetically, 'How will you react?' And I just say, 'I don't think like that.'"

Both quarterbacks have been pleased with their progress so far in camp, and despite their differences in style, Cousins said both are running the same offensive system.

Cousins notes that his ability to read defenses has improved, while Nichol, who often gets stereotyped as a run-first quarterback, has grown more comfortable sitting in the pocket and going through his progressions as long as possible.

"It's been a long road," Nichol said. "I'm really anxious to have it figured out. Anxious is the best word. Anxious for the season, anxious for the season, anxious for the future. I'm excited about everything that's going on."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to break down the most important position on the field, which should be much improved in the Big Ten this year. The league returns its top six rated passers and its passing yards leader in Illinois' Juice Williams.

Depth also plays a huge role at quarterback and could hurt teams that have a big dropoff in experience between the first and second strings. Keep in mind these rankings assess the entire position, not just the starters.

Here's the rundown:

1. Illinois -- The final step in Juice Williams' evolution takes place this fall. No Big Ten quarterback boasts more in-game experience than Williams, who had an amazing first half last season but struggled mightily down the stretch. He'll have the league's top wide receiving corps at his disposal. Eddie McGee has more experience than most Big Ten backups, and redshirt freshman Jacob Charest will push McGee for the No. 2 spot.

2. Minnesota -- I'm sure I'll take some heat for putting the Gophers this high, but there's a lot to like between Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray. Weber has thrown 39 career touchdown passes and battled through some less than ideal circumstances the last two seasons. He reunites with All-America candidate Eric Decker to form one of the league's top passing combos. Weber will be the starter, but Gray has drawn rave reviews and figures to play an integral role in the offense.

3. Ohio State -- Terrelle Pryor showed unmistakable signs of progress in spring ball, and his teammates saw leadership skills develop during the summer. The Big Ten preseason Offensive Player of the Year still has a lot to prove, as does an offense that ranked 105th nationally in passing last year. Former minor league baseball player Joe Bauserman certainly has the arm strength to step in for Pryor, though Ohio State's overall depth at quarterback looks shaky.

4. Penn State -- Daryll Clark is the league's best quarterback and should have gotten the nod for preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Clark also appears to be the Big Ten's most indispensible player, mainly because of his skill but also because of who's behind him. If Clark goes down, Penn State would turn to a true freshman in Kevin Newsome who enrolled early. Newsome did some nice things in the spring but doesn't look ready for the spotlight just yet.

5. Iowa -- It's no secret that I expect big things from Ricky Stanzi, who showed impressive poise in bouncing back from mistakes last fall and still helped Iowa to a 9-4 mark. Stanzi will have much more pressure on his shoulders without Shonn Greene in the backfield, but he looks up to the task. Much like Penn State, Iowa doesn't have a proven backup and will turn to redshirt freshmen James Vandenberg and John Wienke if necessary.

6. Michigan State -- The race for the starting job is too close to call, and head coach Mark Dantonio might not settle on a guy until Big Ten play. But the Spartans appear to have two very good options in Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol. Cousins performed well as Brian Hoyer's backup last fall, while Nichol, the Oklahoma transfer, has drawn comparisons to Drew Stanton with his athleticism. Heralded recruit Andrew Maxwell also is in the mix.

7. Northwestern -- Mike Kafka isn't a stranger to the spotlight despite not starting since his freshman year in 2006. Kafka turned in a record-setting performance in relief of C.J. Bacher last November at Minnesota, rushing for 217 yards. He needs to complement his mobility with a more consistent passing game. Northwestern is fully prepared to play a second quarterback and will turn to sophomore Dan Persa, who did some nice things this spring.

8. Wisconsin -- Quarterback was the Badgers' Achilles' heel last fall, and there are some lingering questions about the position as camp begins. Senior Dustin Sherer did a decent job in a tough situation in 2008, but he'll need to become more consistent and limit his sacks. Redshirt freshman Curt Phillips came on strong late in spring practice and brings athleticism to the quarterback spot. Phillips could provide the continuity at quarterback that Wisconsin fans desperately seek, but he still has more to prove this month.

9. Michigan -- Things definitely will get better for Michigan at quarterback this fall, but how quickly? True freshman Tate Forcier enters preseason camp as the frontrunner for the starting job after impressing his coaches during spring ball and the Michigan fans in the spring game. He'll be joined by classmate Denard Robinson, who boasts track-star speed. And don't forget about Nick Sheridan, who was showing progress this spring before breaking a bone in his leg. This group could soar up the list, but it has a lot to prove.

10. Indiana -- Head coach Bill Lynch has a ton of confidence in Ben Chappell, which is nice to see. But Chappell needs to become a bigger factor in the offense after completing just 52.3 percent of his passes for 91 yards a game last fall. He'll be working with a better offensive line but a young group of receivers that needs playmakers to emerge. Backups Teddy Schell and Adam Follett have little experience.

11. Purdue -- Miami transfer Robert Marve can't play until next year, and Purdue lost its projected starter Justin Siller to academic issues in the spring. Career backup Joey Elliott finally gets his chance to shin
e this fall, and it'll be interesting to see how he performs. Elliott is a very smart quarterback and a good leader, but his in-game résumé leaves a lot to be desired. The coaches are high on redshirt freshman Caleb TerBush, who could push Elliott for playing time.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The presason predictions are jumping around, going in no particular order. We'll get to all 11 teams soon enough.

Michigan State is up next.

1. Kirk Cousins will eventually become Michigan State's starting quarterback -- It's very close between Cousins and fellow sophomore Keith Nichol for the top job, and both men will log significant snaps during September and the early part of Big Ten play. But Cousins' smart play and polished mechanics ultimately will push him into the top spot. I don't see Michigan State making dramatic changes to its offensive system, and Cousins ran things well last year behind Brian Hoyer. Nichol should be an asset for the Spartans, especially if Cousins gets hurt, but Cousins will be the starter.

2. A freshman will emerge as the Spartans' top running back -- None of the holdovers really took charge in the spring, though Caulton Ray made a nice push down the stretch. Still, I'd be surprised if heralded recruits Edwin Baker and Larry Caper don't separate themselves by the middle of the Big Ten slate. Baker and Caper both boast good size for freshmen, especially the 220-pound Caper, and they'll get a long look from the coaches in preseason practice.

3. Michigan State beats Michigan for the second straight year -- After ending a six-game slide to its top rival in 2008, Michigan State gets Michigan in Spartan Stadium on Oct. 3. Though the Wolverines will be an improved team, they likely will have a young starting quarterback making his first road collegiate start. The Spartans' improved defense will stifle a still-evolving Michigan offense and Mark Dantonio's team gets bragging rights for another year.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 8, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Not much on tap today. 

Michigan State spring wrap

May, 6, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State Spartans
2008 overall record: 9-4

2008 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters

Offense: 7; Defense: 8; Special teams: 2

Top returners

WR Blair White, WR Mark Dell, C Joel Nitchman, TE Charlie Gantt, LB Greg Jones, DE Trevor Anderson, S Danny Fortener, K Brett Swenson

Key losses

RB Javon Ringer, QB Brian Hoyer, RT Jesse Miller, DT Justin Kershaw, DE Brandon Long, S Otis Wiley

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Javon Ringer (1,637 yds)
Passing: Brian Hoyer (2,404 yds)
Receiving: Mark Dell* (679 yds)
Tackles: Greg Jones* (127)
Sacks: Trevor Anderson* (8)
Interceptions: Otis Wiley (4)

Spring answers

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 Montana State
Sept. 12 Central Michigan
Sept. 19 at Notre Dame
Sept. 26 at Wisconsin
Oct. 3 Michigan
Oct. 10 at Illinois
Oct. 17 Northwestern
Oct. 24 Iowa
Oct. 31 at Minnesota
Nov. 7 Western Michigan
Nov. 14 at Purdue
Nov. 21 Penn State
1. Quarterback options -- The Spartans' quarterback competition is far from over, and that's not a bad thing. Sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both performed well this spring and put up the exact same totals (357 pass yards, 4 TDs) in the Green-White game. The coaches are comfortable with either player, and both quarterbacks have the athleticism that will allow the offense to expand.

2. Safety depth -- Several key contributors in the secondary missed spring ball with injuries, but the Spartans bolstered their depth at safety with Trenton Robinson. The redshirt freshman continually impressed head coach Mark Dantonio, who mentioned Robinson every time he met with reporters. Robinson could push for a starting spot alongside Danny Fortener or Kendell Davis-Clark.

3. High and tight -- The tight end spot might be phased out for many college teams, but not Michigan State. The Spartans could have more depth at tight end than any Big Ten team -- Wisconsin's right there, too -- as Clemson transfer Brian Linthicum joins Charlie Gantt and Garrett Celek.

Fall questions

1. Ringer's replacement -- Arguably no player in the Big Ten did more for his team last fall than running back Javon Ringer, and Michigan State continues to look for a capable successor or two. None of the four candidates created much separation this spring, and incoming freshman Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will have opportunities to compete in preseason camp. Head coach Mark Dantonio wants to identify 2-3 reliable backs.

2. Offensive line -- Dantonio saw promising signs from a revamped line toward the end of the spring, but some doubt still remains. Junior J'Michael Deane and sophomore Jared McGaha must continue to develop on the right side of the line. Left tackle Rocco Cironi also returns from a shoulder injury and needs to re-establish himself.

3. Pass-rush help -- The Spartans finished eighth in the league in sacks last season (26) and need to identify a second pass-rusher to complement Trevor Anderson. The starting end spot opposite Anderson remains up for grabs, and redshirt freshman Tyler Hoover could land it after a solid spring. Colin Neely also is in the mix.

Posted by'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.

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