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O’Connor ready to assume role as Spartans leader

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Tyler O’Connor insists he’s sleeping fine these days.

With preseason camp in the rearview mirror, the Michigan State quarterback said he even got to sleep in a little Tuesday.

But the idea of any sort of nervousness or apprehension leaving him restless?

That’s not the issue for the fifth-year senior who finally gets his shot as the starting quarterback beginning in the opener Friday against Furman.

“I’m sleeping very well; I got like nine and a half hours last night,” O’Connor said. “I’m very excited. It’s something I’ve been waiting for for a long time and it’s finally here. This week can’t go quick enough.”

It’s that wait that will be the toughest for O’Connor, and he’s not just talking about sitting around all day Friday for a 7 p.m. kickoff.

But he’s been waiting long enough, so what’s another week?

Ever since 2013, when O’Connor was the odd man out in a quarterback battle with Connor Cook and Andrew Maxwell, he’s been waiting for this moment.

It’s his team. The days of sitting in the back of the room are done and gone.

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“I have always kind of sat back and let the seniors go out first, let Connor go out there first, things like that,” O’Connor said. “Finally, I will have no problem being out there in front with Coach D (Mark Dantonio) as we walk out together leading the team and everything like that. It will definitely be a different feel knowing that everybody is behind me and everything like that and it is kind of my team now.”

And the players are behind their quarterback. They elected him a captain last week, along with linebacker Riley Bullough and safety Demetrious Cox. And as much as the topic will be avoided by the Spartans, that says a lot considering Cook, the winningest quarterback in school history, was not a captain.

“He is a great leader,” fifth-year senior center Kodi Kieler said. “He is a guy we all want to follow behind. Getting the reps and him getting all of the throws has been fun this camp.

“It is kind of cool for him finally to be able to go out there and start as a senior.”

That’s the support that makes O’Connor realize sticking through all the days as a backup were worth it. Getting this chance always has been on his mind, and it was hammered home last November when he helped engineer Michigan State’s victory at Ohio State.

It was that game that proved to many, O’Connor included, he could win at this level.

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“I think his confidence has always been there,” senior receiver R.J. Shelton said. “But that game showed that he can do it. … That game kind of was something to give him that ‘I can do this.’ He always had confidence in himself and took practice very seriously.”

O’Connor admits there is some anxiousness, much like he experienced the night before the Ohio State game when he found out he was playing. He understands things won’t always go well and there will be times the fans will voice their displeasure.

But he also knows that comes with being the quarterback, with being the leader of a team that expects to be playing for a championship.

“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,” Dantonio said. “It’s tough being a quarterback at any level, especially at this level in football because you get a lot of criticism, much of it, you know, people that don’t understand the nuances of what he’s going through.

“So he’s got to roll with it a little bit, but he’ll be fine. He’s a competitor and he’s prepared himself for this moment and he’s got a great supporting cast around him.”

Until Friday night, when O’Connor runs out of that tunnel as the Spartans starter, he’ll do his best to stay relaxed, he’ll even get a haircut and make sure he shaves.

Some 20 family members will be on hand when O’Connor takes that first snap.

It took longer than he expected, but it’s finally here. O’Connor is Michigan State’s starting quarterback and he’s going to relish every moment.

“One of the things they always say is to turn the minutes into moments,” O’Connor said. “It is something you really have to cherish. Even going through camp, it is tough for everybody and it is not necessarily fun.

“But this year, it is different.:

Furman at Michigan State

Kickoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV: BTN/WJR

Series: First meeting