It isn't Michigan sophomore Chad Henne or even Iowa junior Drew Tate, who was the preseason selection as Big Ten offensive player of the year. It's Michigan State's Drew Stanton, a player who is so roundly feared in campuses across the nation that many defensive coordinators are drawing up schemes simply to keep the former Farmington Hill Harrison QB in the pocket
Why would any defensive coordinator want to keep a player who threw at a 64.1% completion rate in the pocket rather than flushing him out of it? It's because Stanton may be more dangerous with the football tucked than he is launching it with his right arm.
A former pee-wee football running back, Stanton never really got rid of the running bug, he just channels it when he's under center calling signals.
"It has to be instinctive," said Stanton about the decision to run instead of throw the football, "because everything is going so fast. That's when you can get yourself in trouble. If you make a wrong move or something, you're going to pay for it."
Pay he did, at the hands of arch-rival Michigan. Stanton was slammed into the turf on his first running play after staking the Spartans to a 17-7 lead. It taught him a valuable lesson.
"It was an excruciating pain," admitted the junior signal caller. "My shoulder popped out a couple of times before I got back to the locker room." Stanton learned that while it takes some risks to win big football games, he's too valuable to his teammates to be standing on the sidelines holding a clipboard. Therefore, he has a new mantra: run scared.
"It's a matter of learning from those situations, and not putting yourself in those situations anymore," Stanton said. "I'll get what I can get, and when the situation calls for it, avoid the unnecessary hits. If you had some of these big guys out there chasing you, you'd be running [scared] too."
Stanton's head coach, John L. Smith is running scared too.
He knows his chances of fielding a winning team without the 6-foot-3, 222-pounder behind center, State's chances of fielding a winning squad are slim-and-none.
Behind Stanton are sophomore Brian Hoyer and freshman Dom Natale, neither of whom has ever taken a snap behind center in a collegiate game.
"We'll have to get a lot of snaps in to figure out who'll be backing up Drew," said Smith. "Ideally you like to have a backup with a couple years' experience in the system. But we don't have that."
"[But] as long as that kid's (Stanton) healthy, we have a chance," said Smith. "You don't want to think about limiting the kid because that's what he does to make plays, use his natural abilities. At the same time, we'd like to be a bit more diligent from a coaching standpoint in what we call and when we place him in harm's way."
Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, who has the responsibility of devising an offense that uses Stanton's talents but doesn't keep him in harm's way talked about how the junior has blossomed as a passer this fall.
"What happened in the spring was the best thing that could have happened to Drew," explained Baldwin. "We did not run him and put him in that situation. He had to throw the football. In every scrimmage and every practice that is all he did and as a result, he became a much better thrower."
"I think Drew's mind wasn't open. He was going to take off and run. Now, we have him in a mentality that he can throw underneath or dump the ball off like Jeff Smoker did. He can get it out quick and let the running back or the receiver make the play. We will still run him in certain situations, but I think in his mind now, he can throw the football."
"He is very fast, not going to take you on and not show you a hit. He is going to run away from you. For a quarterback, he has got great quickness and speed to take off through the hole."
Stanton agreed that this summer's passing session helped him to change his focus.
"I think being able to be healthy for once helped a lot. Being able to get out there and get our timing together and doing things correctly helped us out a lot. This offense has the capability to do a lot of things. We were able to run the ball with great success last year."
Senior Kyle Brown, who was lost for the season after suffering a leg injury said Stanton really showed something this summer.
"Drew Stanton threw some real good balls in the spring. Last year, he ran the ball a lot, but now that his passing has improved, so defenses are going to have to adjust to that."
Senior running back Jason Teague says he can't wait to open up the season with a healhty Stanton behind center.
"Everybody knows Drew Stanton is vital to this offense because he's got the legs and he's got the strength. We love having him in there. When Drew is in the huddle, everybody is a little more comfortable. I'm happy that he's healthy right now, and I'm looking forward to seeing him play."
Can a player who meant so much to the State offense a season ago be even better in 2005 and could that lead to a bowl game and an upper division finish for the Spartans?
"It's real exciting going into the season. It's the first time everything's coming together for me -- being the starter and being healthy for once. I've done a lot of work to get to [this] point."
Everyone's talking about Drew Stanton for a reason, he's got the MSU football team on his back.