2012 Michigan State Spartan Football End of Year Report: Part Five
In our Spartan Football end of year report today we start the process of zeroing in on more on field specific areas that led to the Spartans’ 2012 campaign failing to reach the expectations of the coaches, staff, administration, fans, and media.
If you have not read the previous four articles, before moving forward I would suggest that you do. You can find a link to all of them at the bottom of this page. Today we start with the QB.
Fair or not, and I tend to say not, the QB gets far too much credit with a team’s success and in many cases way too much blame when they fail. Andrew Maxwell came into the 2012 season the anointed starter. He was praised for waiting his turn and not transferring while sitting out three years for a legitimate chance.
Maxwell is the all American young man. He is from Michigan. He is smart and excels in the classroom. He is a young man of deep faith and moral conviction. He was heralded as one of the best QBs in the nation coming out of high school. He pledged to the Green and White early and never looked back. This was his year. This was his time.
Since 99% of you have never met Andrew or spent any time with him, let me tell you this. Andrew is among the best young men to come to MSU. Forget sports, we are speaking about anyone, as a man. If you told me right now that my sons could be like Andrew, not the athlete, the person, I would take that in a heartbeat. I have a very good relationship with him and personally like him very much.
Because of his position on the field and the notoriety that comes with it, Maxwell took a large amount of the blame and guilt for 2012. He did not have a great season and some of the blame and criticism was fair and germane. Some was not. We will try to take the veil back and go inside the season to really see what was his fault and what wasn’t.
Mark Dantonio has a basic philosophy about the QB position. It is one that I share and agree with him on. The QB has three ways of impacting a game: 1) With his decisions, 2) With his arm, and 3) With his legs.
In 2009 when Maxwell arrived, he quickly went to the scout team to redshirt and he shined. He was the scout team player of the year and gave the MSU defense great looks every week. The defensive coaches who he faced every day praised him. He was all that he had been hyped to be. He also got to watch the Kirk Cousins vs. Keith Nichol battle first hand. Not only in practice, but the in the position & film room.
There is no need to say who, but heading into 2009 I can tell you the sentiment on the staff (not all, but by many) was that Keith Nichol was going to beat Kirk Cousins for the starters job. Maxwell watched every day the way Cousins not only kept in it, but pulled away.
Cousins did not have the luxury of Maxwell. Yes, he was the all American kid, but he didn’t have the pedigree for star rankings and the recruiting analysts love. He had the admiration and respect of the Johnson family who were big in the Elite 11 world and the total confidence of the then MSU RB coach Dan Enos who pushed to get him in East Lansing.
Maxwell saw every single day the legend of Kirk Cousins grow. It was not fed by the media; it was fed by Kirk’s accomplishments and work ethic. Although frustrating for Nichol and Cousins, the QB battle made them both better.
Neither liked or appreciated playing each series wondering if they would get the next, but those two put on a show that year every day in practice and in games that drove the competitive fire and respect of their teammates for three years.
In the end, Cousins and Nichol both had the team’s respect and admiration and they both ended up leading MSU to back-to-back 11 win seasons. It was on. The fire was lit. Fans bought season tickets at a rapid rate, donors were stepping up, and 2012 was ready to launch a starved fan base back into the national title picture where they belonged. MSU and their all American home grown all world QB would lead the Spartan Nation back to glory. Expectations were high and MSU football fed them.
In searching for answers to why 2012 didn’t reach the success expectations you have to look at the top. Forget that the staff, I blame Mark Dantonio first because he is the head coach for an early warning sign. The staff failed to get Maxwell meaningful reps as he sat and watched for three years. Doesn’t mean he is a bad coach, far from it, he is a great coach, but he made a mistake.
In 2010, Maxwell only had 25 passes while playing in only five games. Six of those passes came in the bowl game against an NFL defense in Alabama that feasted on him like a fat kid with a donut. I screamed all year on my TV show, radio show, Magazine, and internet that they were failing Maxwell. He played in only four regular season games.
In 2011, the scenario is even more egregious and absurd. He only played in four games, threw only 26 passes (compared to 25 the year before), and ten of those were against Florida Atlantic. Consider this. When 1-AA Youngstown State came to town he only played a STUNNING ONE SERIES. ONE! Again I set the airwaves on fire asking how that could be.
The Spartans had already set in their mind he was the man in 2012 from almost the moment Maxwell committed. They had NO EYE on the future and developing him based on their actions in 2011. Remember that reps speak louder than words. It was beyond common sense.
I remember sitting in the press box late in the 2011 season and mentioning to my colleagues that it was absurd Maxwell wasn’t playing. Matt Charboneau from the Detroit News made the statement, “They must not think he is as good as they tell us. If he was, they would have him out there getting ready and playing more. That tells me they must see Connor Cook as more of the choice. I don’t know, but if he was the man they would be playing him.”
You can’t argue with Charboneau’s analysis. We know now that Maxwell was the man, but why keep him on the bench.
Bobby Bowden, the legendary and Hall of Fame coach, was fond of using the first series of the 2nd quarter nearly every game to play his backup; meaningful reps and real minutes that give them a live game feel that they DO NOT get in practice. Dantonio constantly stresses experience and live game reps for young players, but they didn’t do that for Maxwell.
When spring came Andrew injured his knee, so the coaches held him out for the rest of the spring. Dan Roushar admitted that, “If it were a game week, yeah we would play him. We know what we have in Andrew so we can get these reps for Connor (Cook, the backup QB) now.”
You knew what you had? Really? How? He is a great kid and he has all the physical tools, but he didn’t have the chance to show you anything with such a lack of playing time. There was concern in the Duffy among some of the football staff that not letting Maxwell compete with Cook was a bad thing.
I had one person tell me, “I remember how Kirk talked about benefiting from competing with Nichol. Maxwell hasn’t had to compete with anyone yet. I don’t think this helps him. I think he is the better of the two, but let him go prove it to his teammates, coaches, and most importantly himself.”
Before you think it was Maxwell that didn’t want to compete after getting injured in the spring, let me first give you a moment for pause. He didn’t want to sit out. He, unlike his coaching staff, was concerned about the lack of reps.
Maxwell isn’t afraid to compete. This staff let him down. The staff has to set guys up to succeed and they set him up to fail. I think Andrew Maxwell would have beat Connor Cook out last year for the starter’s job. Not that I think Cook is a poor QB. Far from it, but I think the daily battle would have helped them both.
Maxwell joined me in May on Spartan Nation Radio right after spring ball to talk about his game and the mantle that now rested on his young shoulders. He was more realistic than his coaches. It was his frank honesty that was a warning sign that 2012 may not be what many thought, including this reporter.
He told me when I asked about his weaknesses, “I don’t have the game experience yet, obviously. You can take all the practice reps you want and then kind of get make up duty in 30 point wins and 30 point losses, those aren’t really, aren’t the true times that test a QB.”
He went on to elaborate, “If you are playing well and you’re playing great when the stakes aren’t that high that’s great. How are you going to respond when the game is on the line? When you have to lead a two minute drill like Kirk did at the end of the game against Georgia to get us into overtime. Those are really the times that prove a quarterback’s worth and I just think I haven’t had those opportunities yet and those will come and those will be the telling times of me as a player.”
So while the QB was trying to warn everyone that he wasn’t what they thought, his QB coach Dave Warner made this statement prior to the year about his pupil. Warner was speaking to the media that cover MSU and was asked how good Maxwell could be. “I expect Andrew to go into this season where Kirk Cousins went into 2011.”
He stunned the media that day and was even pressed that perhaps he meant Maxwell could end up as good as Cousins one day. Warner would have none of that and stuck to his statement. I applaud coaches when they are honest, but Joe Rexrode the tremendous beat reporter from the Detroit Free Press said what we in the assembled media thought best, “Wow. That is high praise.” Many of us in the room were stunned.
How in the world do you put your first year starting QB in that spot? He is following one of the most beloved and decorated QBs in school history and you say that? Even if you believe it, it would seem logically that you temper it because he didn’t have live reps. Andrew Maxwell now was not only going to have to be himself, he was going to have to be Kirk Cousins 2.0 and that wasn’t fair.
Intentionally or not (and I think it is safe to assume not): Andrew Maxwell here is the bus your QB Coach just lined you up with. Anything short of a Rose Bowl bid set Maxwell up to fail. Not only had they failed to get him reps, they had failed by putting him under a microscope no one could have succeeded at.
It took off from there. Reports and expectations took off immediately. Coaches praised the offensive line and the team’s ability to rush the ball. The nation knew the Spartans could play defense, but the questions on the offense were turned away like pucks shot at a shutdown goalie.
In fairness to Warner, he wasn’t the only coach who felt that way, but as the QB coach he should have been watching his QBs back, not going Lomas Brown on Scott Mitchell. My exact thoughts that I expressed to the Spartan Nation staff that day? “That is absurd or brilliant. I can’t imagine him saying that if this kid isn’t really special.”
In fall camp Maxwell didn’t compete with Cook. The job was Maxwell’s. It not only hurt Maxwell, it also hurt Cook and stressed the MSU offense to the maximum. The job was Maxwell’s and he ran with it. He was named a captain, just like Cousins, prior to ever starting. The pressure mounted. He didn’t get live reps where he could get hit in the fall. MSU football had all of their eggs in Maxwell’s basket and didn’t risk an injury to prepare him.
Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald told Spartan Nation senior writer Jon Schopp late in 2012, “There is no replacement for live game reps.” Maxwell’s 51 career reps came mostly in mop up duty and some in hazardous duty against Alabama. He didn’t have the relevant game experience reps to warrant the comments of his coaches.
It is like a young man graduating from law school and being expected the next day to argue before the Supreme Court of the United States. For those asking at home: WARNING SIGN!
You can’t replace live game action. As Boise approached, Maxwell hadn’t experienced any real competition in months. He wasn’t competing with Cook and hadn’t taken live reps all spring and summer leading to the contest with Boise that he could have had his head knocked off in.
It is important that I say this. I still believe that Andrew Maxwell is a very good QB. I still have confidence that he can do this job. I also think that while his coaches didn’t see a need for competition, the competitive Maxwell would have not only loved it, but embraced it.
There were times in 2012 he was far too conservative and needed to take chances, but he was learning on the job. It wasn’t like this was 2010 or 2011 and he could play knowing he was coming out and Cousins could save the day.
One of the things I like and respect about Dantonio is that the buck does stop with him. He is a man of honor and leads from the front, but his OC and QB coaches share the brunt of the blame also.
In the Dantonio era, he has done a great job of recruiting QBs. He didn’t recruit Hoyer who now plays in the NFL (Arizona Cardinals), but Warner and the MSU staff deserve praise for converting Hoyer to be NFL ready from a non-pro style attack. They did recruit Nick Foles (Philadelphia Eagles) and Kirk Cousins (Redskins) and for all three to make the NFL, it says something.
The NFL people I spoke to for this article don’t question Dantonio as a coach. In fact Dantonio’s reputation is “Stellar,” “Golden,” and “Solid.” They do question some of the coaching that his QBs get. With all three QBs from the Dantonio era who are out of eligibility in the NFL, how can they question that?
After the year all of them commented on the QB situation. Here is what one of them said in response to my questionnaire. “I would love for my kid to play for Mark Dantonio, what a great guy and I have no doubt he could coach at the NFL level. I can say that you can tell his expertise is defense. I turned on the Boise State game knowing that the kid had never started. It is fair to expect first time starter mistakes, but with some of his technique and other struggles, I couldn’t believe he had been in the system three years. When I turned on the Wings Bowl (Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl), I was shocked to see the same mistakes. Sorry, but that rests on coaching. Do you expect a kid on his first day of algebra to be as good as his last day before summer break? Coaches are teachers and you can’t say much about where the player starts, but you can on how they progress.”
Another NFL person presented it like this. “For three years you saw Kirk Cousins make almost the same mistakes technique wise. He had trouble throwing the ball when the throw was away from him, or off his back foot. All three years. He then goes to Washington and immediately that stuff stops. Watch him play for yourself. That makes me question coaching at the QB spot. I really like Dantonio. When you look at prospects out of MSU you get high marks for being in a system with him, but that baffles me with the quarterbacks there. I think you saw that with Hoyer to some degree, Cousins and you saw it with the rook (Maxwell) this year. He was doing things at the end of the year, that shouldn’t be happening. You either have to bench a player that doesn’t improve in areas you are coaching or you are saying you don’t have any faith in his backup. That couldn’t be the case because they went to the backup in the bowl and won. Was the backup hurt all year?” The answer to the last question was no, Cook was healthy.
Was Maxwell helped considerably by his coaching? No.
Make no mistake that players have to make plays, but they are amateurs and coaches are paid a lot of money to fix those things. They recruited him, they have to coach him. Having three years to sit and prepare is a luxury that was not capitalized on.
In defense of Dave Warner I can tell you that I do like him. I also respect him. The thing you have to remember is that he has a boss. It wasn’t like MSU failed to win with Cousins’s struggles that were seemingly cleared up in year one of the NFL. They did win. He has had both an OC and a head coach to answer to.
But I also think that 18-22 year old players and the head coach can take a lot of heat and praise, but assistants can earn both also. It isn’t personal.
How about the poise and care Maxwell displayed with the football? Coach Warner deserves high praise for that. So many times we look for easy answers. So many times we look for quick answers to big questions or problems.
I think keeping Maxwell from blowing up at his wide outs who struggled early all belongs on Warner. His calm and cool demeanor, as well as experience playing at a high level was critical.
Let’s go a little deeper.
Despite the issues at QB, I can tell you QB was NOT the primary reason MSU failed to reach their goals last year. It didn’t help, but this team certainly had bigger issues. Maxwell led MSU to the 4th best passing offense in the Big Ten. Despite the struggles of young wide outs, his ability to pass wasn’t this team’s downfall. Maxwell’s stats are not bad and would have been considerably better had there not been so many drops from the young wide outs.
Some said he “Threw the ball too hard.” I heard one wide out say that with my own ears. That is absurd. You are playing football, catch the ball. If you are complaining that he throws it too hard, your excuses make you sound foolish.
MSU position issues go deeper…much deeper…to the offensive running game and we will talk about that Monday.
In closing, we look at the current QB spot. Mark Dantonio has acknowledged that they failed in not getting more live reps in the spring for Maxwell. He has said the Spartans will practice with a lot more live reps this spring. None of us are perfect in or job and it is unfair to ask that of Dantonio. He admittance is enough to move on.
He has also acknowledged that moving forward the backup QB will get considerably more reps. He told 2012 QB recruit Damion Terry, according to Terry, “(Dantonio) he’s looking for that solid number two guy to get snaps in case something ever happens,” Terry said. “It really caught me off guard (to hear that I could compete as a true freshman), but it excited me.” Terry also told me that Dantonio made it clear to him that, “The backup quarterback is going to get more snaps in games for Michigan State.” That is fantastic news.
I know from people in Spartan Football that Mark Dantonio loves Terry. They tell me that as long as they have known him they have, “Never seen coach so fired up for one guy,” when talking about Terry.
Terry will be behind the proverbial eight ball when summer camp comes because he won’t have the spring to compete. Maxwell will come in as your number one QB and the man to beat. I think the competition will be good for him.
I also know that Connor Cook will get his chances. Cook showed poise in leading MSU to a bowl win. Lastly, we look at Tyler O’Connor. He is the best high school QB I have ever witnessed. That means nothing once you get to college, but I did already report this one nugget.
A member of the MSU football staff said to me after the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, “What a great game. Sets us up nice for the future and think about this, our best quarterback on the team redshirted.” Who knows if what they thought bears out in a true competition.
It is safe to say that the QB under center to start the season in 2013 will have to beat Maxwell. MSU come summer will have a stable of four very good ones who all can do it. You have to think back a long time to remember when MSU had four quarterbacks of this stature and talent.
What we know is this. Mark Dantonio’s philosophy of the QB is that he can change a game in one of three ways: 1) With his decisions, 2) With his arm, or 3) With his legs.
Andrew Maxwell didn’t make enough with his decisions. In trying to be careful with the ball, sometimes you have to just say ‘let’s go’ and he didn’t. That will come with experience for whoever wins the job.
Maxwell has the arm, he needs to trust it more. Finally number three. The QB at MSU must keep defenses in fear of his feet. He doesn’t have to run 15 times a game, but he does have to run a few. Maxwell can do it and didn’t. Not one team on the MSU roster in 2010 or 2011 feared an MSU QB running. After the Notre Dame game last year neither did anyone else. That hurts MSU.
One NCAA head coach who has played the Spartans in the Mark Dantonio era told me this, “I like the pro style system, but I think Wisconsin has just enough of a running QB to keep you honest. A threat of a running QB from State never entered our defensive thinking process the week we played.”
As an offense you have to keep the other team guessing. Dantonio agrees and that is part of his philosophy (#3 With his feet) that has yet to be executed since his arrival.
Coaches around the league complimented Maxwell all year. The blame for the 2012 season does not rest solely at his feet. In my opinion, Spartan fans have been harder on him than he deserves.
It is my personal opinion that the greatest on field coaching mistake of the Dantonio era was the failure to prepare Maxwell for 2012. It goes back long before last spring. Football fans think only about the current year. Coaches must think long term about the program and three years down the road. They failed at that with Maxwell. The difference between failing at a task at your job and the MSU coaches is that millions aren’t watching most of you each day at work.
2012’s failures are NOT all on Maxwell. Far from it. For a better 2013, whoever lines up under center must remember their coach’s philosophy and embrace it…All three parts.