Courtesy: Tim Fitzgerald/CMU Athletics
CMU Spring Football Spotlight: Quarterbacks

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – The main question on nearly every Central Michigan football fan’s mind as the spring season draws to a conclusion is, who has the edge in the quarterback competition?

But for CMU assistant coach Morris Watts, who works closely on a daily basis with the Chippewas’ talented stable of signal callers, the answer is simple.

“It really is too close to call right now. It would actually be a disservice to say that someone is second right now because it’s that close. We feel like, because it is so close between the group, it is better for us to carry the competition into the fall and when somebody separates early in the fall, they will be the one. We’ll be into two-a-days before it’s decided.”

Having no clear-cut frontrunner at this point creates two positives for CMU. First, it serves as a motivational factor as the quarterbacks head into summer workouts in preparation for the fall. Second, it means that there is genuine depth at the position.

The most experienced quarterback of the group is Cody Kater. In 2011, he led Grand Rapids Community College to a perfect 11-0 record, directing on offense that averaged 50 points and 509 yards per game. Kater also played in two games for the Chippewas last season as Ryan Radcliff’s primary back-up.

“Cody’s advantage over the others right now is that he has more actual playing time than any of the others do,” said Watts. “I think that helps him some. He also has something going for him in that he is a pretty good runner with the ball too. He is a threat with his legs. Not that the others can’t, but he separates himself a little there.”

Kater’s demeanor also serves him well, in Watts’ estimation.

“He is a very competitive person. He goes out and competes hard each and every day. He also maintains his poise really well. Even if he gets a little shook up, he can hide his emotions, so people can’t see that they are getting the best of him. He is very even-keeled.”

Alex Niznak, who has three years of eligibility remaining, is also in the running for the starting spot. A local product, from nearby Ithaca, he shined in the 2012 spring game. Niznak has his own special skill set and he has shown definite progress in his development.

“Alex is the fastest of the group,” said Watts. “He ran better than what we thought he could run during timing day. He really ran well. I think that is something he offers to the position too.”

“He has had some really good days and has definitely improved a bunch from the fall. Last spring, he had a real good spring, but struggled in the fall.  The last half of the spring this year, he has had some really good practices. I think he struggles with consistency a little bit because he doesn’t have a lot of game experience, but he is a very hard worker and wants to be a good quarterback.”

Also in the mix is redshirt freshman Cooper Rush. Last season, Rush excelled at running opponents’ offenses during practice, earning Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors.

“Cooper has such a great charisma about him that, even though he doesn’t talk a lot, he draws people to him,” said Watts. “I think eventually he will have some really strong leadership qualities in the fact that how charismatic he is around a group of people.”

“His strong point is accuracy and he throws a very catchable ball. Some of the things he has to work on is that he moves around in the pocket too much when he is passing, but he will get that straightened out. He works hard on anything you give him direction to do.”

Senior A.J. Westendorp, who played tight end and special teams in 2012, is back practicing at quarterback this spring at his own behest.

“(A.J.) asked Coach Enos for another shot at quarterback and he’s been there all spring. At the end, we will go back and look at all the different grade sheets and then decide,” said Watts.

“The thing about A.J. is that he is going to help us out somewhere on this football team, whether he stays at quarterback or moves to another position. But whatever the decision is, he is a great player and makes good decisions. He is on special teams right now and continues to make good plays there.”

True freshman Darrien Boone rounds out the unit. A Chicago-area native, Boone enrolled at CMU early in order to get a jump on the offense’s learning curve. For someone who could still be in high school, Watts is impressed by the youngster.

“Darrien is a really talented guy but is struggling, like all guys do when they come in the first year, with terminology. He has got the tools but just has to learn how to play the position. When we start in the fall, he will be twice as far along as he is now because this summer he will work on all this.”

Even though CMU has a wealth of talent and options at the quarterback position, Watts doesn’t envision a scenario in which he would platoon two players.

“I have never been a guy to believe in that. There may be some situational things because there are some strengths that hopefully we can pull from in some way. But I have ever believed in, and I don’t think Coach Enos does either, that you play two at the position.”

The Spring Game will be an important evaluation tool for the coaching staff but not the decisive test. Because the team is split into two squads, the quarterbacks will somewhat be forced from their normal comfort zone, working behind a different set of offensive linemen and throwing to a different group of receivers.

“The biggest thing to me is how they manage the game,” said Watts. “From control to distance to how they appear in regards to their presence on the field. There won’t be that cohesiveness in the offensive line and with the receivers. There are some things you can’t put as much weight on in this game, but there are some other things that you are looking for in the game too, like how they handle themselves.”

Whoever ultimately wins the starting quarterback job in the fall will have the advantage of being surrounded by top-notch offensive talent, in Watts’ view.

“I think there is no doubt that any time you can run the football, you help your quarterback. If you can’t run the ball,  you become a one-dimensional team and the quarterback becomes a target by the defense to see how many sacks or hits they get on him. So, when you run the football it changes the whole complexion on the quarterback position. We have the backs that can run the ball and the receivers that can go get the ball and beat coverage. They have to feel good where we are in that regard.”

Overall, Watts is pleased with the group’s work this spring and with each of his quarterback’s work ethic and attitude, which will go along way towards achieving success on the field.  

“I am really pleased with how hard they work. They are guys that come in and throw on their own. They are guys that set meetings and go over film. All of them are guys that take notes and everything is important to them. They all attack learning the right way. It really is a great group to work with because they have great practice habits to learn to get as good as you can get at the position.”