April 3, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Thirty-six years ago, Michigan State basketball coach Jud Heathcote winced when he first saw a freshman named Earvin Johnson attempting all manner of awkward off-balance shots.
It wasn't that Heathcote wanted the player, already better known as "Magic," to eliminate the unorthodox heaves from his repertoire. But, if he was going to use them in a game, he darn well better practice them. That creativity eventually became a trademark of one of the best ever to play the game.
And so it is with Spartan quarterbacks these days.
Broken plays are going to occur throughout the course of just about every game, so for the first time under head coach Mark Dantonio, quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor are working diligently at implementing escape plans under game conditions during spring practice.
Maxwell, a fifth-year senior-to-be who started all 13 games last season, said the drills are empowering.
"You look around college football week in and week out, and how many big plays, how many scoring plays result when things don't go as planned?" Maxwell said after Tuesday's practice. "The quarterback keeps it alive for an extra four or five seconds, makes something happen downfield and it results in a touchdown.
"The more we can practice those in a live situation is going to do nothing but help us. Hopefully, we do get the reps at it where it becomes second nature and we aren't standing back there thinking about it."
Like all MSU quarterbacks before him, Maxwell always had the green light to make something out of nothing. He often succeeded at keeping some drives alive, but spontaneity was lacking on others.
Then, as the Spartans struggled to move the ball in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU, Cook was sent in to change things up. In only his third career appearance, Cook made some heady plays to help Michigan State pull out a 17-16 victory.
Afterward, Dantonio promised to add some contemporary wrinkles to the offense. Speculation was rampant on what he meant by that, although it was a given that MSU quarterbacks would be required to be more mobile and to read and react on the move.
Although none is a running back in disguise, each is athletic enough, in varying degrees, to bring a dimension that's been featured in the MSU offenses over the decades by the likes of Earl Morrall, Jimmy Raye, Eddie Smith, Bobby McAllister, Dan Enos, Tony Banks and Drew Stanton.
"We're just trying to be mindful of some things and when we saw it with Connor against TCU and Andrew against Wisconsin on the last drive at the end of the game, those types of things make the difference in the game," said quarterbacks coach Brad Salem. "Maybe it's just more glaring for us as coaches, but we need to get back to the days of teaching some football."
Salem stopped short of calling it chaos-by-design, but making the quarterbacks operate in live-fire conditions - and, they are getting hit by the defense - should raise their comfort level with improvisation in the fall.
"That's a little different than what we've done," Salem said. "You can draw it on the board all you want, and talk about the steps you're going to take and hope it works out that way. But the reality is, you don't play football that way at the quarterback position.
"It's just having a clock in your head and knowing that what we just called and ran through systematically isn't there anymore. So, you need to extend the play a little bit and now that you're on the move and receivers and tight ends need to be in phase."
Maxwell, Cook and O'Connor are each being given an equal number of snaps with the No. 1 offense.
"The thing you need to understand is we love competition and I think these guys do, too," Salem said. "So we're going to try to create an environment that can be as similar as it can be here as it is to Spartan Stadium on Saturday.
"You look at the guys who are successful and they've got great eye-level, they know how to compete, they know when to leave the pocket and when to hang in there. Those are things you develop, but I think it comes with reps. We've got to prepare more than one quarterback, too. We haven't had a ton of depth at that position, so it's been great having three guys that do some special things."
While Maxwell's game experience and knowledge of the offense give him an edge, Cook and O'Connor are getting opportunities to show what they can do. The pecking order has been remained "status quo" so far this spring, Dantonio said, but that could change after Friday's scrimmage.
"Anytime I'm out there, when the play breaks down I've got to make the play with my feet and be calm," Cook said. "We've never been live (in practice) before, so every time we've been scrambling no one's been in our face.
"Coach D has made us live, and that's really bringing out the best in all the quarterbacks. I got hit pretty hard today by Day-Day (free safety Demetrious Cox). I don't mind being hit because it makes things more realistic and game-like. If practice is more like a game, it can only make you better."
O'Connor didn't play last season as a true freshman, so he's getting a crash course in Big Ten speed and physicality.
"I feel like I have the ability to create when things break down," O'Connor said. "The other guys have great arms, just as I think I do, so you have to do different things to stand out. I feel like when things aren't going too well, hopefully I can extend the play, maybe someone gets open and we create some things.
"In football, rarely does it go as planned, so you've got to be able to create. (The coaches) are stressing that a bunch, and the ability to make plays is huge. It's hard going against a great defense like ours, but there are times when they put us in a bind and that's a part of gaining chemistry with the older guys and knowing where they're going to go in a scramble situation. I've been running with the threes over the last year, so this is a huge progression for me."
Salem is trying to heighten Maxwell, Cook and O'Connor's quarterback instincts as much as possible.
"You've got to see what's happening here, and you've got to feel what's happening there," he said. "So, we're trying to create it as much as we can. You've heard about the `live stuff' but what we're doing is playing football.
"Guys aren't taking cheap shots at the QBs, but there's a sense of urgency you don't get when you just do skeleton drills."
Maxwell, who said he's motivated by the adversity he experienced in the bowl, can already see improvement.
"I think all of our games have been elevated because of it," he said. "You can throw in the tape after practice everyday and you can see every one of us making plays. That's what you like to see, I'm sure, as a coordinator and as a head coach.
"You give yourself options and you make everybody better. That's the best thing that can come out of competition."