June 13, 2011

O'Connor's 'hidden talent' could benefit Spartans

When Michigan State received a verbal commitment from Lima (Ohio) Central Catholic quarterback Tyler O'Connor last week, the Spartans also may have strengthened their special teams talent pool just a bit.

O'Connor is one of the top quarterback prospects in the Midwest. He is also one of the best punters in Ohio.

"To be honest with you, punting is one of his hidden talents," said Lima Central Catholic head coach Jerry Cooper. "We went and watched a couple of college football games with him last fall and we said, 'Hey, Ty can punt for some college football teams right now.' I have seen some teams play on Saturday afternoons and he would beat out quite a few of those guys."

O'Connor was the first-team all-state punter in Ohio's Division V last year, and first-team Northwest Conference as a punter and kicker.

"He does all of our extra points and field goals. He averaged almost 44 yards a punt," Cooper said. "That's the kind of athlete he is."

O'Connor is on a family vacation this week, and did not mention the possibility of punting at the college level when he made his initial comments about his commitment to Michigan State. But Cooper said the concept has been mentioned.

"There are a few schools that mentioned punting but Ty was real honest with those schools," Cooper said. "He said his dream was to play quarterback at a BCS conference school and he said, 'If I'm not good enough to play quarterback then maybe I'll try to fall back on being a punter. But right now the goal is to play quarterback at the next level.'

"It's hard to do both at the college level, because all of the intricacies and work that go into being a quarterback. Punting is something that is a side light."

But do not dismiss the possibility. Redshirt freshman Mike Sadler is expected to earn first-string punting duties at Michigan State this fall. Sadler will be a junior when O'Connor is expected to become part of the active roster as a redshirt freshman in 2013.

Michigan State will undoubtedly look to bolster its pool of punting candidates with walk-ons and perhaps a scholarship punter for the 2013 or '14 recruiting class.

Michigan State has had excellent success in recent years in seeing their scholarship punters develop nicely.

But O'Connor provides some insurance just in case a scholarship punter or two falter in the coming years.

"He booms 'em," Cooper said of O'Connor. "We play on a turf field so every once in a while they won't catch it and he'll hit a big, long 60-yarder, but his average is a legitimate figure, and that's through all kind of weather and into the playoffs. He creates so much positive field position for us."

O'Connor received a scholarship offer from Michigan State in February, and committed to the Spartans over Northwestern and several other BCS-conference offers last week. He completed 65 percent of his passes last year in leading Lima Central Catholic to the Division V state semifinals. He threw 26 TD passes against only 6 interceptions.

O'Connor is not regarded as a place kicking prospect at the major conference level. But he contributed at that position last year, as well.

Cooper said O'Connor was 5-of-9 on field goals for the year.

"A couple of them were pretty long ones," Cooper said. "He just missed a 51-yarder at the end of a half. And he missed a 47-yarder on the last play of the game. We feel like 50 yards and in, he has a legitimate shot so we let him try those, late in a half. He made a 42-yarder, a 37-yarder, made a 51-yarder in a scrimmage. He has pretty good range on those kicks."

Cooper made a 54-yarder field goal on a free kick, taking advantage of the free kick rule following a fair catch.

"It was late in the half and a team was punting out of their end zone and we fair caught it and we said let's give Ty a shot to free kick it, and he hit a 54-yarder," Cooper said. "You're talking about a young man with a 54-yard field goal to his credit, a punting average near 44 yards, and he threw six touchdown passes in one game. So he had some really good games in a variety of ways with some real highlights."

Did we mention defense? As was the case with Stanton and Nichol, O'Connor is given occasional defensive assignments in big games.

"We only let him play defense for three games, and in two of the games he had pick-sixes where he picked the ball off in the flat and took them back for touchdowns," Cooper said. "He is an excellent athlete and he has done everything we have asked him to do."

This fall? Rugby punting. With O'Connor, the rugby punt becomes a legitimate run/pass/punt triple option.

"We have worked on getting him on the move and letting his talents become that much more of a weapon," Cooper said.

COMP'S Quick Take

If all goes according to plan, Tyler O'Connor[db], [db]Connor Cook and whoever Michigan State signs at QB in February of 2013 will compete for the right to succeed Andrew Maxwell for the 2014 season.

If O'Connor does not win the QB job in the fall of 2014 as a sophomore, it is conceivable that he could serve as a back-up QB and also as the second-string punter behind Mike Sadler. It's not the preferred route to the field, but this scenario could result in O'Connor being in position to succeed Sadler as the punter when O'Connor is a junior in 2015.

In signing Cook and O'Connor, plus a player to be named later, Michigan State is in good position to have recruited a quality quarterback competition for the expected right to succeed Maxwell in 2014.

In past years, we have seen quality competitions result in Brian Hoyer beating out Dominic Natale and Connor Dixon. We have seen Drew Stanton outlast Stephen Reaves and Damon Dowdell. And Kirk Cousins overcame Keith Nichol and Nick Foles.

At some point during or after those three quarterback competitions, Natale, Dixon, Reaves and Foles transferred to other schools. Nichol switched to wide receiver.

In recruiting Cook, O'Connor and a QB to be named later in 2013 or possibly 2014, it is unlikely and probably unrealistic to expect all three quarterbacks to finish their careers at Michigan State. Based on past trends, one or two of them are likely to transfer.

HOWEVER, O'Connor's ability to potentially compete as a punter could enable him to stay at Michigan State rather than go to the Natale/Reaves/Foles route if he is unable to win the starting quarterback job in East Lansing.

Head coach Mark Dantonio is known for creative use of players with diverse ball skills, such as former high school quarterbacks throwing passes from the wide receiver position (Nichol, Keshawn Martin and similar throws likely to come from Tony Lippett). In addition, Aaron Bates keyed victories over Northwestern and Notre Dame last year with passes from the punter and holder positions.

As of now, O'Connor has as good a chance as Cook and the QB to be named later to emerge as Maxwell's eventual successor. But if O'Connor doesn't win the QB job, Dantonio will have a twinkle in his eye as to how he could possibly use O'Connor as a punter, holder or anything else.

O'Connor's ability to punt increases the likelihood of him remaining a Spartan for five years and contributing in some capacity, rather than going the route of Reaves, Foles and Dixon. O'Connor's diverse skills could give Dantonio another special teams wildcard to play, and save Michigan State a scholarship slot at punter for a year or two. But that's if and only if O'Connor proves he can be a quality punter. None of this means anything if O'Connor takes on the look of a 38-yard punter at the college level. Meanwhile, do not be surprised if O'Connor is asked to punt in practice a few dozen times during his redshirt year in the fall of 2012.

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