Spartans' QB competition features unlikely pair

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Several years ago, the prospect of Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins competing for a starting job on the same team seemed slim at best.

You could make a case the two quarterbacks were intentionally trying to avoid each other.

Nichol committed to Michigan State in the summer of 2005, pegged as the successor to Drew Stanton. At the time, Cousins was a relatively unknown player entering his junior year at a high school that had only started competing in football two years earlier.

But shortly after Michigan State fired head coach John L. Smith in 2006, Nichol decommitted and switched his pledge to Oklahoma. Cousins, meanwhile, had followed several strong performances at junior camps with an excellent senior season.

Scholarship offers started to trickle in. After Nichol bolted, Michigan State assistant Dan Enos came calling and Cousins committed in January 2007.

"If I had to pick from any of the other schools that had offered, I'm not sure where I would have gone," said Cousins, who also received an offer from Colorado. "I'm glad that Michigan State came through."

Their paths seemed set. Two quarterbacks who grew up 50 miles apart in western Michigan would be separated by a time zone in college.

But after Nichol found himself behind future Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford and Joey Halzle on Oklahoma's depth chart, he decided to transfer and ended up where he nearly started, Michigan State.

As the Spartans' quarterback competition kicks off this spring, Cousins and Nichol find themselves together on center stage.

"It's funny how things work out," Nichol said. "I don't think he really knew where he was going to go, and then I go to Oklahoma, he decides to come here and now I'm back.

"Competing with him has made me a better football player, it's made me grow physically and mentally. It's been a blessing, actually."

Cousins would appear to have a slight edge entering the spring after serving as Brian Hoyer's backup last fall, when Michigan State went 9-4. The 6-foot-3, 197-pound Cousins completed 74.4 percent of his passes and appeared in five games, throwing two touchdowns and an interception.

"Being in the games definitely helps," Cousins said. "Any time I was out there, I learned something new. I really underestimated how much of it is a mental side of the game, how much you really have to know between the ears, when I first came."

Cousins savors the experience last fall, but he also points out that Nichol ran the scout team in practice and faced Michigan State's starting defense throughout the fall.

Nichol admits sitting out a year tested his patience, but it also provided several benefits.

"Some guys just kind of count the days, but I was just going along with everything, doing the best I could," he said. "The actual process made me a better football player. When the pressure's off your shoulders, you can grow into your own player in college.

"Everybody has their own journey. It was a good one for me."

The two quarterbacks boast contrasting styles -- Cousins primarily a strong-armed, drop-back passer and Nichol a constant threat to run. Nichol's skills have drawn comparisons to those of Stanton, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate in 2005.

Nichol became close with Stanton during the recruiting process and still keeps in touch with the former Spartans standout.

"He talks to me about what he thinks will work and what he did to be successful," Nichol said. "It's just nice to take tips from guys like him, who have been through it."

Cousins seems to better suit the offense Michigan State ran last season, but head coach Mark Dantonio and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell have made it clear that the scheme will be shaped around the team's top quarterback. Who he is will be determined in the coming weeks and months.

Although Cousins and Nichol have spent the last few months practically joined at the hip -- in meetings, in the weight room, splitting reps in 7-on-7 workouts -- they don't see each other as the enemy.

"To have a mindset where I'm competing against somebody is wrong," Cousins said. "It's not the mindset I want to approach it with. I'm competing against my own potential and my own ability. Every time I put in as much as I can as far as my hard work and my preparation, then I'm winning. And if I allow myself to be lazy or to slack off, then I'm losing.

"So it's a competition against my own potential and developing myself to the highest level I can as a quarterback. If I do that, I have nothing to be ashamed about, whether I'm out there playing or I'm on the bench."