Just last season, Kirk Cousins was an unheralded freshman. An anonymous two-star recruit from Holland, Mich. taking snaps for Brian Hoyer during mop-up duty, like at the end of the Ohio State blowout, and long after the Capital One Bowl had been decided.
Cousins has exploded onto the scene in 2009, turning heads and dissecting opposing defenses.
After the first three starts of his collegiate career, Cousins stands as the 14th most efficient passer in the FBS, with a rating of 164.3. That puts him ahead of Colt McCoy, Jevan Snead, Todd Reesing, Darryl Clark and Max Hall. He's just behind sophomore sensation Kellen Moore—only Moore has an entire year of starting experience on Cousins.
The young man from Holland is putting up numbers that rival the elite quarterbacks in the country. He's averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, good enough for 10th in the country. Cousins has only thrown for 649 yards this season, but he's done so while splitting time with Keith Nichol. In essence, he's had three fewer quarters than his competitors to put up his impressive numbers.
If we project his numbers over those missing quarters, it's quite staggering. He's putting up 288.4 yards for every four quarters played, which extrapolates to 865.3 yards for three full games. That would put Cousins at ninth in the country for total passing yards, instead of 42nd—where he currently sits.
All of this, ladies and gentlemen, as an untested sophomore.
His teammates saw something special in him even before the season started. They elected him as one of their captains in the summer, largely based on qualities that can't be quantified with mere statistics—confidence, leadership, and poise under pressure.
The Spartans' 1-2 start is no fault of Cousins'. How can you find blame in a quarterback who, in his first ever road game, walked into Notre Dame Stadium and threw for over 300 yards?
Unfortunately, the old saying is true. You can't please all of the people all of the time. There is a very small minority of Spartans fans now calling for Keith Nichol to get his shot at starting.
Detractors point to the interception thrown by Cousins to end the Notre Dame game. Anybody who watched the entire game will tell you that it's a testament to Cousins' abilities that the Spartans were even in a position to win that game at the end.
The naysayers in the Spartan fanbase will also tell you that Michigan State is 1-2 with Kirk Cousins as the starter. Again, to say this means that you expect Kirk Cousins to shoulder the responsibility for missed tackles, blown coverages, and generally poor defensive play.
Any time your offense puts up 57 points and 775 total yards over the course of two games, your football team should reasonably expect to win those games. 28.5 points would have been good enough to beat Florida last week. It beat Virginia Tech to open the season. With 28.5 points, you would have beaten either Ohio State or USC at the Horseshoe in week two, take your pick.
Fact is, Kirk Cousins is an untested sophomore in name only. He's shown the poise and accuracy of a savvy veteran, something that the Spartans so desperately need this season with the departures of Brian Hoyer and Javon Ringer. Watching him play, you can tell that the young offense really appreciates having that calm presence as their leader.
Cousins' abilities become even more important when you look at the struggles the Spartans have had running the ball this season. In 2007 and 2008, they didn't need big production out of the quarterback spot thanks to the considerable production of Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer. Those two produced 49 total touchdowns during that period, and rushed for roughly 4,000 yards.
In 2009, without an elite, established running back, the Spartan ground attack is suffering. The platoon of Caulton Ray and Larry Caper shows plenty of promise, but they're still freshmen and are running behind a patchwork offensive line. Currently, the Spartans are ranked 81st in the country in rushing, producing an anemic 127 yards per game.
With rushing production like that, the passing attack has to carry the bulk of the load on offense, and Cousins has answered the bell. Even though opposing teams have been able to plan for the pass, Cousins is still putting up great numbers. He's making incredibly accurate throws into tight coverage, and has already put up more than half the touchdowns that Brian Hoyer did during the entirety of the 2008 season.
Before this current season began, many pundits predicted that the Spartans would struggle to replace Brian Hoyer. The reality has been the opposite—Cousins has been playing at a higher level than Hoyer ever did. In fact, he might eclipse Jeff Smoker's sophomore numbers by season's end, and Smoker had the best ever season by a Spartan sophomore quarterback.
Cousins' abilities should scare all future Michigan State opponents. Not only is he blossoming into a great quarterback right now, but the fierce competition between him and Nichol could very well propel them both to dizzying heights.
The best part is, they're only sophomores.