Oct. 18, 2008
Leadership is not defined by statistics - measuring it with numbers would simplify the complex influence it can have on a team. But as hard as it is to quantify, its visibility is easily apparent in any successful season. Inner determination by a few can bring out success in many.
The pulse of any team can be felt through its leaders; it starts at the top. And for this 2008 Michigan State football team - at 6-1, off to its most successful start in five years - it begins with its four player-elected captains, including fifth-year senior quarterback Brian Hoyer.
"It would be nice to be voted on by your coaches," said Hoyer, "but to be voted by the guys you're with day in and day out, the guys who you struggle with through weight lifting, winter workouts, and summer conditioning, for me to have earned their respect, it's something very special that I'll remember for a long time."
The North Olmsted, Ohio, native with a lightning arm has proved himself on every occasion throughout his career. As a sophomore playing for a different coaching staff, Hoyer was forced into the difficult challenge of filling in for an injured Drew Stanton in the final two games of the 2006 regular season. He responded by throwing 56 completions for 621 yards and two touchdowns, jumpstarting his time as the go-to quarterback.
"When I took over, Drew told me to go out there and be a leader, and earn the respect of my teammates and your coaches," said Hoyer. "I was fortunate to sit behind Drew and learn a lot from him."
In his first year as the full-time starter as a junior in 2007, Hoyer lit up the record books with 2,725 passing yards, 223 completions and 20 touchdowns, all of which rank among the top-four totals in MSU single-season history. But now, in his final season wearing the Green and White, Hoyer is going beyond those numbers with his emerging role as a leader to achieve the most important element in the game - winning.
Hoyer was one of the main reasons MSU went bowling last year for the first time since 2003. But with six losses arriving by a touchdown or less, including the Champs Sports Bowl to Boston College, Hoyer knew he could be better, and in turn, make his team better.
"I feel more in control and more confident," said Hoyer on starting his second year. "You can manage the game better. The second time around, you know the little things to look for, especially managing the clock and getting into the right play calls. I feel like I'm a better player this year.
"I've also increased my preparation from what I did before," Hoyer said. "The game is so fast that if you aren't mentally prepared for what's happening out there, no matter how physically gifted you are, it's going to be hard to get the job done. It's really not the physical part of the game; I would say it's the mental. People are trying to trick you with their coverages, they're trying to show you different looks, and if you don't know what's going on, it's hard to play out there. As last year wore on, things started to slow down for me. The mental aspect of the game really started to slow down. When you can go out and make plays without thinking, that's when it's easiest, and I've tried to continue to do that this year."
It's the little things not found in the stat sheet that can make the difference, according to running backs coach Dan Enos, who started at quarterback for the Spartans in 1989-90.
"I think the first year, there's a lot of unknowns," said Enos. "In your second year, in the offseason, you see the mistakes that you made, and hopefully you can learn from them and not make them again. The way you go through it and the way you approach it, you have a little more experience, and Brian's doing that. He's a great leader, a great competitor, and he gives us a chance to win every time we line up.
"I felt way more comfortable in my second year as a starter," Enos added. "Stat-wise I don't think I was even close to my junior year, but I felt I made better decisions and had a better handle on things. I also feel like I handled the adversity better."
He certainly did. Enos led the Spartans to a share of the Big Ten title as a senior in 1990.
Quarterbacks will always make mistakes. But no one lives in the present more than Hoyer. He's always moving forward, always thinking about the next play. He is not timid, and will not back down from a challenge.
"I'm focused, but I also try and stay loose," said Hoyer. "I feel at the quarterback position you can't get too emotional, you can't get too fired up, and you can't get low. In a matter of seconds, things can turn. I try to stay in the middle. I've always likened it to being a pitcher - if you give up a home run, you still have to go face the next batter. Whether you throw a touchdown or an interception, you still have to go out for the next play and make something happen.
"Once I get out there and start warming up in pregame, I'm pretty locked in and pretty focused. Really, I hate the time building up, because that's when the tension builds up. I wish we could just wake up, go out and stretch and play, that would be the best. For me, I try to stay even. I do have little tradition where I talk to Jim Miller when I warm up. It's always good to talk to another former Spartan quarterback who has been in my shoes before."
Hoyer knows the pitcher's mentality because he used to be one. In fact, Hoyer threw in the 90s in high school and most likely would have been drafted if it wasn't for his intention to play Division I football at a Big Ten institution. He compiled an 8-1 record with a 1.99 ERA as a sophomore while leading St. Ignatius (near Cleveland) to the state title.
"If football doesn't work out for me, that's something I've always thought about in the back of my mind - how hard can it be after reading defenses and getting hit by Big Ten linebackers?" said Hoyer, laughing. "I'll do my best to continue my football career, but if somewhere down the road it doesn't work out, we'll see."
Perhaps the most telling sign of a leader is how he's viewed by the inner circle - his teammates and coaches. In that regard, Hoyer has earned the utmost respect of everyone he's worked with.
"The average person probably doesn't exactly understand what a quarterback does out there," said MSU head coach Mark Dantonio. "Brian controls the tempo of the game. He controls a large part of the passing and running game. He's in charge of the huddle and has to instill confidence in that huddle. He's played very well - he's the quarterback of a 6-1 football team. I think it gives him great confidence to know that we're a 6-1 football team and he's gone through the things that he's done."
Hoyer achieved a personal milestone in the road victory at Northwestern last weekend, becoming just the seventh Spartan quarterback to throw for 5,000-career yards. But that's not what Coach Dantonio talked about after the game. It was a play in which Hoyer was slammed to the turf at Ryan Field.
"From my standpoint, him getting off the ground and stepping back into that huddle after he was knocked down was a huge statement for Brian Hoyer because it talks about his toughness," said Dantonio. "His toughness can be measured in mental toughness - not just playing the position on this stage - but also his physical toughness and being able to hang in there. He took a hit, got back up, and went back in there."
"There's definitely a difference in Brian this year," added fellow captain Javon Ringer. "He's a lot calmer in the huddle. He's matured and really takes charge of everything. He understands that he is the head of our offense and the one that keeps everything rolling. He's taken that role in stride. Overall, he's been a tremendous role model for all of the players on this team."
"To me, you measure a quarterback's worth by whether you win or lose," said MSU head Coach Dantonio after the victory over Iowa. "And right now, we're winning, and he has a lot to do with that."
"You just have to be yourself," explained Hoyer. "Being in the quarterback position, you have to be a leader. A lot of people lead in different ways. I came into my own here, I've never tried to change my personality. I always felt like I was a natural leader, so that kind of came on its own. It's not always jumping on someone, but picking somebody up, or telling them when they're doing something good. I always felt like positive reinforcement is a lot easier to deal with. Instead of looking for the bad things, you're looking for the good things. You have to let people know when they're doing good, because through positive reinforcement, hopefully they'll stay with it."
Leadership is about bringing the team together for a common goal, and right now, Hoyer is seeing the benefits.
"Our team, the companionship, is at the highest it's ever been since I've been here," he said. "Last year, it was part of the building process and starting a foundation, and we started to trust in each other and play for each other. Now, it's gone to another level. You can walk into that locker room, you can walk into that huddle, and you know that people care for each other, and that's what's special about this team.
"For all of the stuff that our class has gone through, these last few games could have a huge impact on this program and this university," Hoyer continued. "We can leave our footsteps in the sand. These last five games are definitely important for us, but we really just have to take it one week at a time and make each game like you're playing for the Big Ten championship and that it's the most important one you've ever played in. I think we have something special here. If we can just go out and focus on what needs to be done, we'll have a good reward at the end of the year."
By Ben Phlegar, MSU Athletic Communications
This feature was originally published in the Oct. 18 edition of Michigan State Football Gameday Magazine.