When Keith Nichol steps under center for Michigan State on Saturday—whether that’s at the beginning of the game or some time later—the Spartan offense will be gaining another dimension because of Nichol’s skill as a ballcarrier and as a rush-evader.
Yep, Nichol can run. And if State wants to implement the option, he’s probably the man to do it.
But considering that Michigan State runs a pro-style offense, how important is that added dimension?It’s clearly a nice bonus. No debate there. It’s easy to imagine some extra first downs coming MSU’s way if Nichol is free to improvise. But I’m uncomfortable when I hear people talk about QB mobility in a way that implies that traditional pocket-passers are being passed on the evolutionary food chain by the dual-threat types. If MSU plans to run Tom Osborne’s offense (or Rich Rodriguez’s offense), maybe those folks have a point. But MSU runs a pro-style offense, and has spent the last couple of years recruiting some elite pro-style high school QBs. It's harder to visualize the extra first downs you might pick up when a downfield pass is right on the money instead of six inches too high, but those hypothetical plays at least as important as the would-be scrambles.
So as we continue to evaluate this competition on Saturday, let’s make sure we’re still paying attention to old-school traits like making good reads and good throws in addition to the extra weapon Nichol adds with his running game. That’s not to say I’m in the Kirk Cousins camp, because it looks like both guys can make good decisions and throw the ball downfield accurately, and both looked spectacular against Montana State’s wildly overmatched secondary.
But based on that small sample (plus what we saw of Cousins last season), Cousins may be a bit sharper throwing the ball downfield. If that’s true (and we don't know that yet), it’s important, and shouldn’t be automatically trumped by the added benefit that Nichol can run. (By the way, I think it's worth noting that while both guys had their way with the Bobcats, all three of Cousins’ TD passes went to wideouts, and both of Nichol’s touchdowns were thrown to tight ends.)
I could go either way in the MSU QB derby, and Nichol's running ability is a significant factor working in his favor. But before we write off Kirk Cousins on the grounds that he isn’t Pat White, just remember that the NFL is full of quarterbacks who lack Nichol’s extra dimension, but still manage to get by.