Aug 27, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. ─ Make no mistake, pitched battles have been waged for the starting quarterback job at Michigan State throughout program history.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, however, to find a former No.1 Spartan QB who emerged from a vetting process as arduous as the one fifth-year senior Andrew Maxwell just went through to retain his hold on the position going into Friday's season opener against Western Michigan.
With no guarantee of a 14th career start in his future, Maxwell withstood fierce competition throughout preseason camp from not one, but three challengers head coach Mark Dantonio swears are each capable of running the offense at a high level against the Broncos, and beyond.
Connor Cook, the red-shirt sophomore who forced a re-opening of the competition with his winning relief performance against TCU eight months ago in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, also will play against Western, Dantonio said Tuesday while announcing the plan at his first weekly news conference of the season.
Waiting in the wings are red-shirt freshman Tyler O'Connor and true freshman Damion Terry, who both made compelling presentations on why holding clipboards and wearing headsets will be a serious under-utilization of their abilities.
Nevertheless, there can be only one No. 1, and the mountain of statistical, video, empirical and anecdotal evidence, which even the most cynical of doubters would have a hard time disputing, came down in support of a Maxwell decision.
There's absolutely no doubt in Maxwell's mind that the trial by fire has made him a more effective quarterback going into the season than he would have been as an entrenched, and untouchable, incumbent.
"I think all it did is make me better and the team better because every day, you don't have the luxury of coming out and not bringing everything you have," Maxwell said after Tuesday's practice. "If you come out and you don't have it, if you come out and don't have enthusiasm, if you come out and don't have focus, there's two or three guys ready to bring that and take that spot.
"If anything, it helped me in that I brought my focus every day, I brought my execution every day and I'm a better play because of it."
Dantonio candidly admitted that he went into camp believing Maxwell would come out the starter. After all, Maxwell was the only one with a legitimate track record established over the course of a season, and in 2012, he had the fourth-most completions (234) and seventh-most passing yards (2,606) in school history.
However, Cook, O'Connor and Terry rattled Dantonio's belief system with such regularity he and the coaching staff had no choice but to let the members of the quarterback quartet settle the debate with their arms, legs and minds on the practice field - measurably, intangibly and instinctively.
Dantonio isn't acting on a hunch or a gut feeling; proof won out in the end.
"I tried to give everybody opportunities," he said. "Every one of those four quarterbacks we talked about worked with the ones and twos. Every one of those quarterbacks had live reps where they were live and (the defense) could tackle the quarterback, which is unusual. We tried to put them in game situations.
"What I tried to provide was a very competitive situation, mainly to put pressure on everybody. People have to feel the heat so you can evaluate them in pressure situations. There were times when a guy had a better practice, put him with the ones, just like I did with Damion Terry that one scrimmage..., putting him with the ones."
One of the iron-clad tenets of Dantonio's coaching philosophy is, "I will always try and play the very best player, I don't care if he's a freshman or not."
All things being equal, and Maxwell said Dantonio told him that from purely an ability and talent standpoint it was as close to a dead-heat finish four competitors can produce, what set him apart was his game experience and knowledge accumulated during four-plus years in the meeting room and in the heat of BCS-level competition.
"I certainly think that would be a part of it," Maxwell said. "One thing Coach Dantonio told me was the skill level between the four of us is really not going to be a whole lot different. That being the case, having 13 games of starting experience under my belt helps just because I've been in situations.
"There are so many things you encounter your first year starting that you really can't learn in fall camp. Having gone through those certainly helps me. I'm excited that we can kind of put all that past us and we can focus on putting points on the scoreboard and winning the game because that's what's really important.
"That's what we want the story to be - the team, and our success going down the road."
That's a viewpoint shared by Maxwell's closest in-house rival.
"When Coach decided to go with Andrew to start, it was no surprise to me," Cook said. "I think we all had a really, really good camp. We were all pushing each other. He didn't say when he's going to put me in, but I've got to be ready. I still want to continue to compete and push the other quarterbacks, and when I get opportunities in the game I want to showcase what I have."
The next challenge for Maxwell will be to play in a carefree manner unencumbered by worries that his next mistake could be his last. He said he'll be fine in that respect as long as he continues to heed the advice passed onto him a couple of weeks ago by the leading member of the team training staff.
"The pressure kind of got taken off of me when Sally Nogle reminded me a few times that, `Look, you're not out there to beat three other quarterbacks; you're out there to beat the defense,' " Maxwell said. "Once I took more a mind-set of, I can't control the number of reps I get, but I can control what I do with the reps when I'm in there. When I'm on the field, I'm not looking over my shoulder trying to beat three other quarterbacks, I'm trying to beat the defense and move the football team. That's where it turned for me.
"At every single place that's playing football, something will go wrong at some point. The question is, how do we respond and how do we react, and how do I, as a quarterback, play through that? It's been said for years that quarterbacks have to have short memories. What's got to be my focus and that of the offense is that things are going to go wrong, but how do we respond? How do we go from there?"
Lest anyone on the outside think this quarterback exercise caused divisions within the ranks, think again.
"Anytime you have competition, it makes you a better quarterback or at any position," fifth-year senior wide receiver Bennie Fowler told reporters. "It brings out the best in you...It never was much of a distraction because they (Maxwell and Cook) both throw the ball well, and we're going to be good either way."