For all the yap about Connor Cook falling and Jake Rudock climbing, Mark Dantonio still wins on volume. Of the 114 active quarterbacks currently listed on NFL rosters, five of them — more than 4 percent of the field — have Michigan State ties.
In Week 2 of the 2014 NFL season, four of the winning quarterbacks — Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles and Drew Stanton — all played collegiately for the Spartans at one point or another. (Foles would eventually transfer to Arizona in 2008 after a season in green.)
In Week 1 of the 2015 slate, only one collegiate program — Michigan State — could claim ties to more than one NFL starting signal-caller (Cousins at Washington; Hoyer with Houston).
Firing torpedoes at a narrative is one thing. Actually sinking it is something else entirely.
“I think what you’re seeing, legitimately seeing, is that Dantonio and the coaching staff, they recruit a certain type of kids, really tough kids,” longtime NFL analyst Russ Lande said of the Spartans’ venerated coach. “Guys that are going to buy in, be a part of the team and are going to do all sorts of things.
“And also what you’re doing is you’re getting really good coaches. Kids get in there and they’re getting coached to be the (best) level of quarterback that they possibly can.”
So even if you want to debate the quality of the crude, there’s no denying the pipeline. Or the consistency: Assistant Dave Warner is entering his fourth season as co-offensive coordinator and was the Spartans’ quarterbacks coach for the six seasons (2007-’12) prior to that. With Warner and Jim Bollman sharing coordinator duties, Michigan State’s record is 36 up, 5 down.
Right instruction. Right kids. Right system. Even as the spread approach has filtered down to the grassroots levels and up to NFL playbooks, the core principles at the next level are still rooted more to Bill Walsh and Sid Gillman than they to Mike Leach and Art Briles.
To that end, Dantonio still prefers his signal-callers under center, still gives them enough rope to change plays and protections on the spot. And it shows.
“Basically, at Michigan State, they’re smart guys. They understand the game,” said Dan Shonka, general manager and national scout at Ourlads.com. “They run a lot of play-action, but they’re run-oriented, NFL-type offenses. And I think, hey, with all these spread quarterbacks up (to) NFL teams, I think that’s one thing that helps the Michigan State quarterbacks. They’re taking snaps from center and they understand the pro style.
“And I think that the guys that are there, you know, they have their prototype that they like. And if you kind of look at all those quarterbacks and basically the way I’ve always seen those guys are as NFL backup quarterbacks. I mean, that’s what they are. But that being said, Kirk Cousins kind of broke the mold a little bit. (Although) as you recall, a year ago, before he played well, they were ready to dump him.”
The NFL chews up and spits out signal-callers the way a dog does an old shoe, which is where the mental toughness part comes in. The 6-foot-4 Cook was 34-5 at Michigan State, boasts a 33-inch vertical, threw 70 touchdowns against 21 picks as a Spartan and won two Big Ten championship games and a Rose Bowl.
But he also (in) famously blew off Archie Griffin on national television, and when word got out — and word gets out during the wood chipper of run-up to the NFL Draft, most of it unkind — that teammates and peers didn’t exactly rave about the dude’s personality, the story got legs, then took off like Usain Bolt.
Before long, a first/second round projection became a fourth-round selection of the Oakland Raiders, and the fallout got a little contentious …
Just read article in Det. News on CC. Writers need to check their facts and “sources” inside the bubble. #35-5 #GossipColumm
— Mark Dantonio (@DantonioMark) May 3, 2016
“Insightful” Free Press article on CC. 3 years of interviews granted tells his story. #35-5 #YouLikeThat?!
— Mark Dantonio (@DantonioMark) May 3, 2016
OK, fine. More than a little.
But personalities are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, a petri dish where mountains become mole hills, and vice versa. And talking to Lande, you wonder if the Raiders somehow didn’t come away with a bit of a steal.
“(At some programs), from three of four years earlier, they’re leaving with virtually the same skills. (At Michigan State), you’re seeing guys make big strides,” he said. “Even though Connor Cook went in the fourth round, I could see, between his junior and senior year, the consistency, the (change) was dramatic. It was like night and day. That, to me, (says) what Dantonio has done, is that they coach these kids up.”
No question, Jim Harbaugh helped make Rudock viable at Michigan, the way he helped turn Colin Kaepernick into the most dangerous cat on two legs (for a while), Alex Smith into a Pro Bowler, and Andrew Luck into the No. 1 overall pick.
But if Ann Arbor is home to The Quarterback Whisperer, East Lansing is headquarters of The Quarterback Assembly Line — steady, reliable off the floor. Harbaugh makes Corvettes; Dantonio churns out Lexuses. Which ride can you count on to get you where you need to be, once push comes to shove?
“They do a good job in identifying,” Lande continued. “At Alabama, At LSU, (they say), ‘We’re going to just crush someone because we have better athletes.’ But (the Spartans) are like, ‘We’re going to beat you because we’re tougher and more physical, and we’re going to beat you into the ground.’
“Those are the guys he gets, guys who get that. I think he gets quarterbacks who say, ‘You know what? That it’s maybe not (the first) spot I wanted to go because of talent or whatever … they’re going to coach me up and I’m going to come out of there a better football player.’”
Chances are, a richer player, too.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler