EAST LANSING - No player in Mark Dantonio's program has used spring football to get the most out of his ability as a football player and a leader than senior quarterback Kirk Cousins.
As a red-shirt freshman in the spring of 2008, the 6-foot-3, 203-pound former Holland Christian standout beat out Nick Foles to back up senior quarterback Brian Hoyer (New England Patriots). A year later, Cousins performed well under immense pressure in a fierce competition with Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol to replace Hoyer as starting quarterback.
Cousins played a pivotal leadership role last spring as a junior. He, along with Greg Jones, Joel Foreman, and Aaron Bates, was at the forefront of a group of upperclassmen that made the type of leadership commitment necessary to win the program's first Big Ten title since 1990.
As a senior, Cousins is an established quarterback with two seasons as a starter and captain behind him. He knows how to win, he knows how to make his teammates better, and Cousins is committed to helping young players develop the skills they will need to keep the program moving upward after he is gone.
"I am trying to have fun with it, enjoy the process," explained Cousins. "That is my perspective right now. There is always the excitement of spring ball as the weather gets warmer. There is not the pressure of a game coming up. You are just out there trying get better and keep the enthusiasm in practice going and keep guys excited. We are working hard and it is good to be out there realizing that I have nine months left here and I am trying to make the most of it so I want to play with as much enthusiasm to make those things possible."
During the five years he has been in the Spartan football program, Cousins has spent a lot of hours after practice working to establish timing and touch with Michigan State receivers. These days, Cousins is spending a good deal of time with the three centers - Ethan Ruhland, Blake Treadwell, and Travis Jackson-- that are vying for the spot left vacant by John Stipek.
"We are trying to get as many snaps as possible because Blake wasn't a center until this spring," said Cousins. "We have to teach him and work with him on all the nuances of the center position as far as getting the snap down. Plays don't work unless you're getting the snap from center and we are working on getting that fundamental fixed first and foremost."
Jackson is the youngest of the trio competing at center. But Cousins likes what he has seen from the red-shirt freshman from Columbus through five practices this spring.
"He has worked very, very hard and we expect great things out of him," Cousins explained. "He was on the scout team last year so I haven't had snaps with him and it is foreign to be working with him. So we need to get snaps. Ethan is guy that I haven't gotten snaps with in awhile because I was working with John Stipek for so long and Joel Nitchman before that.
"Between those three guys we have some chemistry to build and that is what spring ball is for. But what I like about those guys is how hard they work and their attitude, the way they are coachable and the way they want to fight for reps and the way they want to stay after practice and get better. When you have guys like that you are going to have success."
Cousins believes finding the best fit at center is well worth whatever inconvenience a quarterback might experience receiving snaps from three different players.
"I don't think there is any rush," said Cousins. "I think we need to find the right guy to make sure we get these guys as many reps as possible. Like I said, Blake and Travis have a lot of upside but they are young. If were to try and make an early decision, we could miss out on what they could be for us next season. We need to be patient and let those guys develop. I don't think there is any rush until maybe even the week before the first game. As long as we have a week to build that chemistry there, we will be alright. We will be fine."
Cousins has still found time to work with the young receivers in the Spartan program. Red-shirt freshman Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery are two rising young wide outs who have impressed their senior quarterback.
"They are two guys with tremendous upside," Cousins said. "You see that a lot during spring, guys that maybe aren't there mentally or maybe aren't quite there with their technique, but you can see right away the reason why they were brought here and why we are so excited to have them here and excited for the future. As spring ball goes on, as camp goes on we are going to see them more and more and see them become more reliable. As the season goes on next year, they are going to be ready to fill in for a B.J. Cunningham or Keith Nichol if need be. Down the road, when you are looking at who Andrew Maxwell is going to have to throw to, there is a lot of talent there between Bennie Fowler, Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery and the list goes on and on."
A 6-foot-0, 205-pounder from Georgia, Mumphery packs elite athleticism into a powerful frame.
"He is very, very athletic," explained Cousins. "Even with the receivers that we had last year, he was in Top 5 in athleticism. In terms of speed, jumping ability, strength, just overall being a physical athlete Keith is tremendous and that is why we are so excited about him. As far as learning the receiver position, learning route running, learning the techniques as far as keeping your shoulders over your toes and all of those little things you don't learn in high school, he has to work at it and that takes time.
At 6-foot-3, the 185-pound Lippett is expected to the field at wide receiver and corner next fall.
"Tony is just very, very smooth," said Cousins. "He shows a natural ability, good instincts, things that you can't teach. When you add to it that he is 6-4 and has great speed too, there is a lot of upside. We will work through the growing pains much like we are doing with the centers, but when you look at who coach Dantonio and his staff have brought in as far as recruits, not only are they great players but they are great people and I think it bodes well for the seasons to come."