Grinz on Green: Spartans Weighing Their Options at Quarterback
Sept. 11, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Making decisions for somebody else is one of the easiest things in the world. It doesn't even require antacids.
If fifth-year senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who has the fourth-most completions and seventh-most passing yards in a single season in Michigan State history, isn't moving the Spartans' offense into the end zone, then third-year sophomore Connor Cook obviously will.
And when the offense sputters with Cook, then red-shirt freshman Tyler O'Connor ought to get a try because, well, he's probably better even though his body of work is still in a state of gestation.
There is now intense pressure to see what true freshman Damion Terry can do in Saturday's game against Youngstown State.
Head coach Mark Dantonio announced earlier this week that the plan is to prepare Cook for his second career start and get Terry ready to go in off the bench, even though playing him for even one down potentially comes with proportionately immense ramifications.
Certainly, if Dantonio, co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner and Jim Bollman and quarterbacks coach Brad Salem conclude that Terry gives MSU its best chance to win now, then playing him may be worth the risk.
However, burning Terry's red shirt, whether he's ready or not, gives him one less year to develop and effectively removes him from consideration to start in 2017.
"If he's not ready to play in a game, we can't take the redshirt off him and ruin his year," Dantonio said. "That wouldn't be fair to him (and) people need to understand that.
"If we take the redshirt off of him, it means he had a great week of practice and he's ready to play, we'll go in that direction. We can't play him one game and not play him again. That's not fair to him, not when you're a true freshman. That's why this situation needs to be managed delicately. We have to make sure he's ready to play and then allow him to develop."
The optimism surrounding Terry is based on what was, by most accounts, a spectacular showing in a preseason scrimmage and the talent and physical traits that got him recruited in the first place.
Dantonio said he had hoped to give him an opportunity to prove himself in practice before last week's 21-6 victory against South Florida, but he was sidelined by strep throat and a bruised thumb.
"You see flashes of what he can do," Salem said. "But to be honest, we have not seen him much. Even in fall camp he wasn't able to take snaps for a week-and-a-half. He's back, and he looks like he's 100 percent, and you see ability to move and throw.
"And you still see youthfulness. You've got to protect the kid, too, be when you're talking about, IF he plays, you have to somehow guarantee success because you're taking a redshirt from him and that's a huge decision.
"That's the seriousness of this."
Terry may indeed be the answer, but the talk about him isn't unlike the he's-the-real-deal chatter from Ohio media the past two years and from within MSU the past two years regarding O'Connor.
In his first appearance as a Spartan, O'Connor moved the ball to inside the 5-yard line, but nearly threw an interception in the end zone and ran a play incorrectly that resulted in a 5-yard loss. The drive ended with a missed field goal, and even O'Connor admitted afterward that those mistakes warranted the end of his day.
O'Connor had 12-plus months, and spring practice, to get ready for that moment; Terry will have had about six weeks.
"That's everybody chanting they want him," Salem said. "I understand that. But is he ready to handle it? Can we really guarantee success because when you make that decision, it's a big deal for the kid.
"We don't really know what's going to happen before 75,000 people."
Without a fool-proof crystal ball, there's no way to predict that the cost of Terry's redshirt is worth what he can do on the field. The last time Michigan State relied on an untested entity was 2009 with Kirk Cousins.
Despite benefit of redshirting as a freshman in 2007 and playing in five games the following season, he was far from being a finished product he would later become. His ill-advised and immature throw that resulted in a late interception in his third career start as a third-year sophomore at Notre Dame, proved especially costly in a 33-30 loss.
Despite Cousins' best efforts and intentions, Michigan State finished with a 6-7 record. Of course, he went on to lead the Spartans to a Big Ten Championship and a Legends Division title in back-to-back 11-win seasons the next two years.
At this point, Cook, O'Connor, Terry and even Maxwell are still in contention to be the next Cousins based on how things have a way of turning out.
Unlike with the other three, a decision to play Terry comes with enormous risk.
"You see flashes, but can that flash become a consistency, and he knows that," Salem said. "It's a big decision, and that's why Coach (Dantonio) is being patient with it."
Knowing what's in Terry's head and heart also has to be taken into account, and who better than those evaluating him on a minute-by-minute basis, and himself, to weigh such information.
"I've asked him straight-out, `Are you ready for Big Ten football because I want to know where you're at?' " Salem said. "Mentally, he loves competition and I think he's absolutely excited for an opportunity.
"And if he had reservations, he'll tell us. The conversations will continue and communication with him, and really, all four guys, is what we're trying to maintain. We'll keep growing each guy and do the best we can to find the best guy."
There are other major implications as well. If Terry plays, it can't be for just one series, quarter or game, and if he doesn't pan out, let him finish out the season holding a clipboard or signaling in plays. Taking the redshirt off him is a commitment to play him the rest of the season in some way, shape or form.
Putting Terry in against Youngstown State can't be based on naïve impulses based on educated guesses, gut feelings or hunches. It has to be done with the knowledge that it is, without question, the very best judgment that gives the seniors who have given the program their all for four or five years, and what could be one of the best defenses ever assembled at MSU, the best chance to win this season.
"That's why this decision can't be made in one hour or even one day," Salem said. "If you make the decision to play him, it's for the duration. That's why we're being very conscious of Damion as a person, what's best for him and our team.
"You don't want him to play one game and then say, `Oops, he wasn't ready.' "