Spartans' Cousins has beaten odds to become face of Big Ten
What senior Kirk Cousins lacks in measureables, he makes up for in intangibles
MSU will need Cousins' hard work and leadership against mighty Wisconsin
To some, Cousins has become the face of what's right about college football
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Forget the speech at Big Ten media day that made Kirk Cousins a minor national celebrity. The Michigan State quarterback's finest oration came this past summer as he stood before his offensive linemen in the Spartans' locker room.
"Guys," Cousins began, "I've never met an offensive lineman ..."
Then he called down the thunder.
"... who was not a good eater," Cousins said. "If we want to win, we've got to prepare to win -- by going on a buffet crawl."
So Cousins led a ton and a half of hormonal humanity to Old Chicago (deep dish pizza), an Asian buffet and an Old Country Buffet. Man handed food a humbling defeat that summer evening. When the plates were cleared, Cousins, like a true leader, took his offensive linemen for ice cream at the MSU dairy store.
Is it any wonder Michigan State's linemen have allowed a Big Ten-low five sacks this season? They would do anything to protect their captain -- the man who brought deep dish and sesame chicken and fried okra -- who tried to keep pace but who simply couldn't stuff enough into his 205-pound frame.
"I tried to hang with them," said Cousins, whose blond hair and ice blue eyes would make him the perfect lead in a CW teen drama if football doesn't work out. "But guys like [315-pound tackle] Dan France and [310-pound guard] Shawn Kamm can put away some food."
Those linemen will need that bulk Saturday night when they face Big Ten front-runner Wisconsin. But they won't fear, because they know they have Cousins behind them. The fifth-year senior from Holland, Mich., rarely steers the Spartans wrong. Because what Cousins lacks in physical tools -- he's happy to catalogue his flaws for anyone who asks -- he makes up for in intangibles. Cousins' numbers aren't eye-popping. He is third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (219.5) and fourth in passing efficiency (140.5). Teammates gravitate to him either through sheer force of personality or out of respect for his willingness to stare down blitzing defenders, deliver the ball and get pulverized. He did the latter twice to convert third downs on key third-quarter drives last week against Michigan.
Senior guard Joel Foreman sensed something special in Cousins the moment he set foot on campus in 2007. Cousins reported two weeks later than his teammates because of a trip to Israel, and teammates wondered how he would compete with fellow freshman quarterback Nick Foles (now Arizona's starter). They didn't wonder long. Quickly, Cousins assumed command of the scout team offense, which also featured Foreman and receiver B.J. Cunningham, who would grow into two of the cornerstones of the current Michigan State offense. "I could definitely tell he was going to be a leader," Foreman said. "Right off the bat, he was the leader of our class. He was the guy you looked up to. Anything you needed, you went to Kirk. ... It was no surprise two years later when he was the captain of the team."
The surprise was that Cousins made it to Michigan State at all. In his first varsity game as a junior at Holland Christian, he broke his ankle. With tears rolling down his face on the drive home from the doctor's office, Cousins asked his parents if his chances of playing college football had vanished. His father, Don, a minister who consults at churches across the country, told him to keep faith. A biblical passage, Proverbs 3:5-6, became Cousins' motto. "Trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding," the passage says. "In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight."
With no junior film to show college coaches, Cousins would have to prove himself on the camp circuit. Unfortunately, his measureables didn't wow anyone, either. "I wasn't a physical specimen," Cousins said. "I was 6-foot-1, 6-2 and about 160 pounds. And I wasn't running a 4.5."
Or a 4.6. Or a 4.7. For much of high school, Cousins couldn't crack five seconds in the 40-yard dash. As a senior, he finally whittled his time to a 4.9. "It's a good time," Cousins said, "for an offensive lineman." Still, Cousins had one skill that kept coaches intrigued. "I could always throw the football," he said.
Always. Cousins barely remembers a time when he couldn't fire a tight spiral. His father remembers Kirk as a fourth-grade flag football player in a league in suburban Chicago. (Mike Singletary, whose son played on the team, was the defensive coordinator.) Most of the offenses were run-based. Cousins' team aired it out. Cousins didn't have any fancy private coaching, and his high school had a young program that forced coaches to worry more about getting players lined up properly than the quarterback's throwing motion. Yet when Cousins attended Purdue's camp at age 15, the coaches told him he had the best throwing motion of any of the quarterbacks at the camp. Quarterback guru Bob Johnson noticed, too, and he helped spread the gospel of Cousins in the summer of 2006.
Still, all that enthusiasm evaporated every time Cousins stepped on the scale or faced a stopwatch. "Just about everywhere I went, I threw the ball well enough to where they were interested and they were going to keep tabs on me," Cousins said. "But I didn't run a fast enough 40, or I wasn't big enough."
Most future BCS-conference quarterbacks wrap their recruitments before the start of their senior seasons in high school. "Going into your senior year, most big-time schools have already gotten their quarterback," Cousins said. "You're looking at going to a MAC school, probably. And that's what I was hoping for. I was hoping for a Western Michigan or a Toledo to come in if I had a good season." When Cousins' senior season started, he had zero FBS offers. When Cousins' senior season ended, he had zero FBS offers. Western Michigan and Toledo did come through with offers in December 2006, and Cousins began weighing the pros and cons of each school. Come February 2007, he assumed he would sign with one.
Meanwhile, in East Lansing, coach Mark Dantonio had just arrived from Cincinnati. He was having lousy luck recruiting quarterbacks. Cousins can tick off the names of the players who turned down offers from the Spartans that year. Matt Simms, who signed with Louisville and wound up at Tennessee by way of a California junior college. Nick Fanuzzi, who signed with Alabama and wound up at Rice. Robert Marve, who signed with Miami and wound up at Purdue. "I was like option six," Cousins said. "And options one through five went elsewhere."
Cousins took an official visit to East Lansing in January 2007. Unlike most of the players visiting that weekend, Cousins didn't have an offer. "You go on an official visit with a scholarship offer, and they're trying to woo you to come to the school," he said. "I went on the official visit trying to woo them to offer me." So how does a too-small, too-slow quarterback convince a major college coach to give him a scholarship? For Cousins, the best method was to do all the things his minister father taught him. "You just try to look them in the eye, shake their hand," Cousins said. "If you don't run a 4.5, if you don't weigh 210 pounds, you show them that as a person, you're going to be someone they want. You just try to be a stand-up person." For this, Cousins was uniquely qualified.
"He has a presence," Don Cousins said. "That's not something you teach. That's something God gave him."
The handshakes and eye contact only went so far. Because Michigan State coaches hadn't seen Cousins throw in person, they needed a way to gauge Cousins' athleticism. So Dantonio sent assistant Don Treadwell to watch Cousins practice with the basketball team. "Maybe we sent a few long passes down the court," Cousins said with a smile. Eventually, Dantonio offered the scholarship.
As a redshirt sophomore, Cousins beat out Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol for the right to succeed Brian Hoyer. Cousins won the job because of tireless study. Because he is so aware of his physical limitations, Cousins has pushed himself to out-prepare opponents. "I can't run through them," he said. "I can't really run around them. I can't throw it through them. So I've got to know where they're going to be."
It didn't take long for all the leadership skills Dantonio sensed during Cousins' recruitment and the scout teamers noticed as freshmen to bubble to the surface. Cousins quickly became the face of the Spartans. After sports information director John Lewandowski nominated Cousins to speak for the athletes at Big Ten media day in August, Cousins became the face of the Big Ten and -- to some -- the smiling face of what is right about college football in a time when scandals dominate the headlines. Cousins happily accepts the role. No amount of attention will change him. He'll always be the skinny guy content to stuff his face with a bunch of gluttonous 300-pounders. "He doesn't have to just be a great quarterback," Dantonio said. "He's going to be a great husband, a great father, a great community leader. The guy just sort of has it as a person."