NOAH TRISTER, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Tyler O’Connor expects it will feel different to take the field this week in Michigan State’s opening game.
“You can finally go out there like it’s your team,” the fifth-year senior said.
After three years backing up Connor Cook at quarterback, O’Connor finally has his chance to lead the Spartans. He’s the starter now, and when No. 12 Michigan State hosts Furman on Friday night, he’ll try to take the first step toward soothing concerns Spartans fans have about a potential drop-off at that position.
O’Connor has attempted only 54 passes at Michigan State, so he takes over the starting job amid a fair amount of uncertainty.
“I think everything is in order for him. I guess my message to him is: Be yourself, understand there’s going to be criticism and just if you make a mistake, go at it 100 percent and bounce back from it. It’s tough being a quarterback at any level, especially at this level,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s a competitor and he’s prepared himself for this moment and he’s got a great supporting cast around him.”
O’Connor was part of an extended quarterback competition at the beginning of the 2013 season, and when Cook — a sophomore at the time — ultimately established himself as the starter, O’Connor didn’t seem to have much of a future at Michigan State. He stayed the course, though, sticking with the Spartans through the end of Cook’s college career.
O’Connor did start one game last year — at Ohio State when Cook was hurt. The Spartans pulled off a huge upset, and although their offensive approach was conservative that day, O’Connor played a role in one of Michigan State’s greatest victories under Dantonio.
Moments like that can help any player’s confidence, and O’Connor has the backing of both his coach and his teammates.
“He leads the huddle. He does everything the right way. I believed in him when he came in last year. I believe in any quarterback that we have here at Michigan State,” receiver R.J. Shelton said. “With him, just be poised like you always do and go out there and have fun and get the job done — which he will.”
Following on Cook’s three-year run — which included two Big Ten titles — won’t be easy. After last season’s appearance in college football’s four-team playoff, the Spartans have high hopes again. As usual, games against Michigan and Ohio State should go a long way toward defining the season in East Lansing.
After facing Furman, the Spartans have an open date on the schedule before playing at Notre Dame. That will probably be the first big test for O’Connor this year.
“I really do try to stay in the moment. It’s a long season, a lot of games, a lot of important games on the road,” O’Connor said. “You want to have a huge year, you want to come out and show everybody what you can do, but you can only play one game a week, and there’s seven days between each game — or 15 days after this first game.”
Unlike Cook, O’Connor will only have one season as the starter to leave a legacy at Michigan State. His career as a Spartan will be judged almost entirely on what happens over the next few months. Friday is his final season opener at Spartan Stadium as a college player — but it also feels like a new beginning for O’Connor.
It’s no wonder he’s eager to get started.
“It’s something I’ve been waiting for, for a long time, and it’s finally here,” he said. “This week can’t go quick enough.”
Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister
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