Aug 19, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. ─ Regardless of what anyone thinks about Michigan State's quarterback competition expanding with just one week of preseason camp remaining instead of contracting, fail-safe mechanisms are in place to trigger a satisfactory resolution.
Of course head coach Mark Dantonio and quarterbacks coach Brad Salem would have preferred there be a clear-cut frontrunner in the QB derby at this point, but that wasn't going to be the case even if true freshman Damion Terry didn't have a lights-out performance in last Saturday's scrimmage.
Andrew Maxwell, the battle-tested senior incumbent, Connor Cook, the Buffalo Wild Wings hero, and Tyler O'Connor, the intriguing, if not mysterious, dual-threat have all had coaches exclaiming, "Eureka!, there's gold in that arm."
The sudden discovery of the Terry vein simply has coaches delaying any declarations of finding the mother lode until they've explored every possibility in the time remaining.
History is rife with regrets of untaken turns, short stops and under-investigated assumptions.
"We're gonna find out," Dantonio said prior to Monday morning's practice. "Is it a one-time thing, or is there consistency there? There's no question (Terry) made some plays, he made some big-time throws, and that's exciting to watch."
So this is real, if not a bit surprising given Terry's initial struggles to pick up the offense, which Salem compared to "learning another language." He was fluent enough on Saturday to state a strong case on his own behalf by completing 10 of 14 passing for 240 yards and three touchdowns, and rushing for 40 yards on 12 carries.
"As the scrimmage progressed, he did well with the threes," Dantonio said of how Terry started out with the No. 3 offense against the third defense. "I sort of shrugged my shoulders and put him with the twos. I sort of shrugged my shoulders and put him with the ones.
"At the beginning of the scrimmage it was a three-horse race and at the end of the scrimmage it was a four-horse race. I think that's the fair thing to assess right now. Damion has to prove consistency of performance; the other guys have to move the ball with more consistency."
Each will be relying on their individual strengths, whether its experience, knowledge, confidence, instinct, athletic ability, or combinations there-of.
"It's not that complicated. You're going to play the guys that move the football down the field, that don't make mistakes, that can create," Dantonio said. "I've said that all along. Obviously, there are differences in terms of who has the most knowledge and things of that nature, but ..., you have to give people the opportunities."
There's a long-held belief that if a team claims to have two No. 1 quarterbacks, it doesn't have any, so how the critics and cynics are deciphering MSU's situation is pretty predictable.
For the record, Dantonio said all four are "major college quarterbacks" while Salem acknowledged that all four are No. 1s at this point.
"That's the way we put it," Salem said.
Eventually, however, there will be a starter and there will be three names listed behind his on the depth chart. By their nature, all four are ultra-competitive, single-mindedly convinced of their abilities and territorial, or they wouldn't be in the position they are in.
Consequently, there is potential for bruised egos and disruptions to team chemistry, which Salem, who coached the running backs the past three seasons, Dantonio, and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman are already addressing.
"That's what you worry about," Salem said. "But the thing you've got to understand is the culture of this program, the unity and the family that's been built for the last couple years. I've dealt with this in the running back room and they did a phenomenal job even though they all wanted to play.
"Same thing here. They all want to start. The No. 1 thing coach (Dantonio) does such a good job with is communication. We sat down with all four today and just talked about it. There's no secrets - here's where you're at, here's where you need to improve, here's where you're doing well."
The goal for the rest of camp is to project a unified front regardless of who takes the first snap in the opener against Western Michigan on Aug. 30.
"We just talk about it and communicate, and then, from them also, you hear the response that when this decision is made, we need to be together," Salem said. "They get that and I just think that reflects well on the kids we have."
Arriving at sound decisions and the propensity for making plays are inseparable at the quarterback position.
"You've got to have the ability to move the offense," Salem said. "It all comes down to you. Whether guys are catching or running it, or dropping it or penalties, if you don't move it as a quarterback it's still on your shoulders. How you carry yourself in the huddle, the tempo, how you demand things from other people on the offense - that goes on the shoulders of the quarterback."
Maxwell has a tell-tale steadiness that comes from studying the offense for five years and then executing it in a practical manner during 13 career starts. Cook has an air of bravado and O'Connor has stayed entrenched in the race by riding a steady incline of progress during camp, Salem said.
Terry has the least experience and knowledge to match with his ability to improvise while on the move, and has yet to be confronted by an experienced defense determined to cross him up by cleverly disguising what it wants to do, in game conditions.
"No, you can't (have that at this point)," Salem said. "We are fortunate because of what (defensive coordinator Pat) Narduzzi does. We do so many different things defensively, he's getting accustomed to it. But you're not seeing odd fronts or different type of blitzes other teams show, but that's just the knowledge you continue to grow.
"As a young guy, his biggest challenge is just understanding the defense. That being said, we have some older guys at running back and older guys at linemen, so they can kind of help each other."
The final component is: Who will the team embrace? Will each quarterback have his own clique, or camp, that will be disappointed if its guy isn't the guy.
Even that is part of a self-correcting situation, according to offensive tackle Fou Fonoti. If individual performance is adversely affected by the number of the jersey on the quarterback, then there's someone else standing by.
"It's a good problem for us to have," Fonoti said. "With these young guys stepping up (at quarterback), it makes us feel better knowing that whoever we've got back there, he's going to pass it or he's going to run it. These guys are each talented in their own ways, and do a great job out there. They're all big-time.
"The chemistry is amazing because we know whoever's in, we're going to protect our job and do the best for them."