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A star at MSU, Cousins is at it again with Washington

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Kirk Cousins

Allen Park — Lions safety Glover Quin has been around the league plenty long enough to see a whole bunch of different quarterbacks.

Quin also has been around long enough not to get caught up in who's the best in the business, and who isn't.

That includes this week's opponent, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins.

"I don't get into premier, elite, all that stuff," Quin said before practice Wednesday. "There are 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, and he's one of them, so he's one of the best in the world."

Fair enough.

Still pretty high praise, in fact. Your thoughts, Kirk?

"I mean, I was shaking my head in disbelief when I got a scholarship to Michigan State, when we won bowl games, when we won the Big Ten championship," Cousins said with a laugh during a conference call with reporters this week. "It's been a journey for me going back to when I was playing Pop Warner football, where every step of the way has been special."

Cousins returns to his home state to face the Lions on Sunday (1 p.m., Fox/WJR) for the first time here as an NFL starting quarterback. And he arrives as one of the up-and-comers in the game, having won four straight games to right Washington's season, and eight of 10 regular-season games, dating to last year.

It's quite the rise for an afterthought in the 2012 NFL draft — a fourth-round pick where six other quarterbacks were drafted ahead of him, including the top two picks overall, Andrew Luck to Indianapolis and Robert Griffin III to Washington.

After all the ups-and-downs with Griffin — one injury after another, including a concussion suffered against the Lions in an exhibition game in 2015 — Cousins, quiet and humble, hardly imposing (6-foot-3, 214 pounds) and willing to wait his turn, was named Washington's starting quarterback before the start of last season, and has started every game since, compiling a 13-19 record.

That's no small talk, not in Washington, where Joe Theismann once said fans care more about who's starting at quarterback than who's president of the United States.

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"There's a lot of pressure, and not to mention it was a tough situation he came into," Washington coach Jay Gruden said. "He came into a situation where he got drafted the same year as a Heisman Trophy winner, and he's done a great job of doing everything in his power to become a better quarterback.

"You just love his humility, you love the way he works. You like how people respond to him, and you like the way he competes and prepares."

It's nothing new to Cousins, who wasn't highly recruited out of Holland (Mich.) Christian and had been set to pick between MAC schools Toledo or Western Michigan.

That was until the new coach at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio, whiffed on some high-profile recruits in his first go-around on the Spartans trail, and he extended a scholarship offer to Cousins. In 2008, he backed up Brian Hoyer. In 2009, he won the starting job and struggled out of the gate before rallying Michigan State to a bowl game appearance. In 2010, he won a Big Ten championship. In 2011, he led the Spartans to the first-ever Big Ten championship game.

Cousins knows a thing or two about seizing the opportunity, and running with it.

And doing it in the most humble way possible. You'd be hard-pressed, Gruden said, to find a more low-key, humble quarterback in the NFL today, or ever. If Gruden had to pick one, it'd be his guy at Cincinnati, Andy Dalton, who, like Cousins, is big-time into faith. Gruden's actually never heard either one of them swear.

"Never, the same with Dalton," said Gruden, the Bengals' offensive coordinator from 2011-13 before getting the Washington head coaching job. "I actually put a curse word in a play one time for Dalton, just to hear it, but he wouldn't say it anyway."

Dalton took over as Bengals starting quarterback in 2011, and remains on the job today.

For Cousins, 28, he had sporadic starting opportunities in Washington, eventually relinquishing them to a healthy Griffin or Colt McCoy. After making waves about a possible trade request in 2014, he became the guy for Washington ahead of the 2015 season.

And all he's done is turn into one of the game's most accurate passers, with completion-percentages of 60 percent or better in 20 games since the start of last season, including last season's 35-18 playoff loss to Green Bay. Four times last season, he was at 80 percent or above.

That can't be music to the Lions' ears, given how Los Angeles Rams quarterback Case Keenum tore up the Detroit secondary like he was getting fitted for a gold jacket.

"He's doing an excellent job, his percentages, completions," said Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who compares his steady arsenal to that of Gruden's when he was at Louisville — Caldwell was wide-receivers coach at Louisville during Gruden's freshman season. "It's up there near the top of the league since he's been in there. A very effective leader, and he moves the team up and down the field."

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Like at Michigan State, Cousins also has plenty of help around him, in the running game (Matt Jones) and passing game (pick a receiver, starting with DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder), to go with a bulky, protective offensive line.

Washington is tied with New England for fourth-most yards on offense in the league (387.2); it's fifth in passing (276.8) and 12th in rushing (110.3).

And the ringleader is one Kirk Daniel Cousins, so unassuming, he can still go out in public — at least, he could before that, "You Like That!?!" viral video.

"I get it a lot," Cousins said, chuckling, when asked how often fans repeat the line to him out and about. "You know, whether it's my youth football camp in Holland in the summer with the kids, or at the stadium, or just out at a restaurant, I do get it a lot.

"But I try to blend in as best I can and I do a pretty good job of that, just blending in and flying under the radar."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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