While at Michigan State, Kirk Cousins and LeVeon Bell set a standard while embodying Mark Dantonio’s coaching philosophy—and that of Spartans hoops coach Tom Izzo—of doing more with less.
Both flourished under Dantonio.
Perhaps the word “flourished” is an understatement—each became among the best to ever play their position.
Will Cousins and Bell continue to be productive starters?
Cousins and Bell were two guys who no one wanted, yet they propelled the rebuilding Spartans to a record number of wins, their first share of a Big Ten title in 20 years, three straight triumphs over Michigan and an Outback Bowl victory over a talent-filled Georgia squad headed by Aaron Murray.
Surrounded by a lukewarm buzz, each entered the NFL draft—Cousins was taken in the fourth round in 2012 by Washington as an insurance plan for its top draftee, Robert Griffin III, who was fresh off a Heisman-winning season at Baylor.
But times have changed for Cousins, who is now the No. 1 in D.C.
Pittsburgh opted for Bell in the second round of 2013, taking a chance on a workhorse running back who was met with mixed reviews.
Sunday night, Bell became just the third Steelers rookie to eclipse 1,000 yards from scrimmage, per ESPN’s live broadcast of Pittsburgh’s 30-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
They’re not NFL stars. But they’re proof positive of Dantonio’s working system—it’s a system that will bring multiple Big Ten titles to East Lansing and continue to turn once-unheralded talent into gold.
Darqueze Dennard, you’re next.
Cousins Taking Over with Class
Captain Kirk has always been the consummate professional. He’s not new to a quarterback situation, but he’s certainly encountering something a little different than fighting Keith Nichol for starting reps.
Today, he’s essentially a moving piece within a battle that’s engulfed our nation’s capital—is RGIII in or out?
What about coach Mike Shanahan? He can’t see eye to eye with owner Dan Snyder. And, of course, that deteriorating relationship makes national headlines every minute of the day. In case you haven’t heard, there’s a presidential-sized mess going on in the Redskins' front office.
Cousins has shown incredible poise and discipline throughout the fiasco. His demeanor has always been appreciated at Michigan State, and it’s a safe bet that Dantonio is using Cousins’ current position as a teaching tool for his soon-to-be pros.
In all likelihood, Dantonio’s probably citing Cousins’ high-road approach as means to handle a multitude of problems in life, not just on the field.
Not long ago, Cousins moved luncheon goers with a leadership speech during Big Ten media days. In 2013, he’s playing the role of a smooth, polished, experienced and composed professional who only wants what’s best for his organization.
He’s often baited with headline-seeking questions. Cousins hasn’t bitten once. He’s not going to satisfy the massive hunger of a controversy—that’s not his style.
Whether or not he’s the answer for Washington is irrelevant. Cousins is simply doing what he was drafted to do, and that’s to serve as second fiddle to RGIII until further notice.
Well, he’s been called upon, and he’s certainly not going to roll over. Despite three turnovers, Cousins had his team one play away from victory. Instead, a failed two-point conversion with 18 seconds to play clouded his 381-yard effort during Sunday's 27-26 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Taking it in stride, he didn't deflect, deny, call out coaches or cast blame on anyone but himself, the team's quarterback and maestro of the offense.
However, Cousins’ stock increased in value. Eventually, he’ll get a shot at a full-time starting job. And as he’s said in televised press conferences, he’ll have his experience at Michigan State to help him wade through the murky waters of adversity.
He's a symbol of a Dantonio-instilled resilience.
NFL Grades: Kirk Cousins helps his future trade stock with today's performance. http://t.co/354wpy1aaN— CBSSports.com (@CBSSports) December 16, 2013
Bell Perfectly Fits Steelers
At 6’1” and 244 pounds, Bell looks at home lined up next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He’s big. He blocks. He’s made for a black and yellow uniform, which has been the case for plenty of former Spartans—credit the George Perles-Pittsburgh connection for that.
Bell’s not blowing off doors with an average of 3.4 yards per carry. But he’s more than serviceable when the Steelers need a short-yardage touchdown or when they’re in need of a few feet to move the chains.
Bell does that. He does it well, actually.
Also a threat as a receiver, Bell’s 8.9 yards per touch make him a valuable asset to coach Mike Tomlin’s playoff-hopeful squad. He’s fought foot injury and concussion in the name of being a productive starter.
Having the chance to be your own franchise ball-carrier has its benefits. Playing pro ball in the Steel City was a dream for Bell, who said the following in June to ESPN’s Jamison Hensley:
Growing up, my family was hard-core Pittsburgh Steelers fans. I know the Steelers love revolving their offense around the running game. The fact that they picked me made me very happy. I’m glad where I’m at, and I want to go out there and make plays for them.
Spartans running backs haven't translated college success to pro success. Sedrick Irvin, a pre-Dantonio back, wasted away for two years in Detroit. Jehuu Caulcrick, hopped around from San Francisco to Buffalo but never stayed put.
Javon Ringer never made it past No. 2 on Tennessee's depth chart.
There aren't a lot of positive past stories for Bell to follow. He could end up like Ringer or Caulcrick, or he could be the next Lorenzo White. Bell is to Dantonio running backs as Cousins is to Dantonio quarterbacks.
They're not the first from Michigan State to have solid starts in the League. They certainly won't be the last. However, Cousins and Bell have set the scale on which Dantonio's pros will be graded.
Follow Bleacher Report's Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81