Connor Cook and the Michigan State Spartans are coming off a terrific season. The 6-4, 220-pound sophomore's emergence was one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2013 college season. Cook, a former unheralded recruit, took over the starting QB job and helped MSU win the Big Ten title and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl to finish 13-1 and rank No. 3 in the nation. Cook sparked a big improvement in the Spartans offense that went from No. 108 in scoring in 2012 up to No. 64 last season while producing a sterling 22-6 TD-INT ratio. The Big Ten coaches voted him as the second-team All-Big Ten quarterback. Cook also earned Academic All-Big Ten honors.
This week, Cook is using his spring break to get in a little extra work. He and his parents flew out to San Diego for some vacation while the Spartan QB spends most of his week training with private quarterback coach George Whitfield. In this Q&A Cook talks about how sweet it was to beat Ohio State to win the Big Ten title; the specific things he's improved on and how he and the Spartans are trying to follow up the special 2013 season.
Q: Last year you went from not being the starting QB to taking over, getting momentum and then helping Michigan State to win the Big Ten title over Ohio State and then to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford. What goes through your mind when you think back to last season?
Cook: I look back with a lot of great memories. Our offense didn't have an identity before the season and then we came out and were really, really successful. So now heading into 2014, our expectations are so high that I feel like anything less than a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl would be a failure. But it's different now. I feel like we're going to have more of a swagger heading into this season.
Last year, we didn't even know who the quarterback was going to be. We didn't know what our offense was going to be like. Now, guys have proven themselves at the quarterback position and the wideouts. The offensive line did an exceptional job blocking for me. We finished in the top five in (fewest) sacks allowed. I think the main difference is we're going in with a lot more momentum. I feel like guys are going to be much more confident and ready to make plays.
Q: What exactly clicked for you last year?
Cook: I think it was a lot of things. Obviously, playing with an exceptional defense, and them allowing me to not (have to) take as many chances and risks. That allowed for me to develop. Having a good running game too also helped me in the passing game, but I really feel like guys just stepped up every week allowing me to grow as a quarterback. Early in the season, Macgarrett Kings was like my go-to guy. Then, a couple of weeks later, Bennie Fowler was my go-to, and then, in the last couple of games, Tony Lippett was.
Q: What did beating Ohio State on a stage like that mean for you, especially as an Ohio kid?
Cook: It just boosted my confidence even more. We were playing the No. 2 team in the nation, on that big of a stage, with being one game away from going to the Rose Bowl, it really boosted my confidence.
Being from Ohio, it just made it all that much better. It made the game personal. Growing up in Ohio, the state isn't divided like Michigan is. Everyone in Ohio is an Ohio State fan. So, being able to take it to them and beat them and shut up all the haters was honestly one of the most fulfilling, greatest feelings that I ever felt playing the game of football.
Q: For years whenever people have talked about Michigan State, they'd say, 'Michigan State has a great defense, but the offense is pretty shaky.' How do you feel knowing that after last year, you guys took a big step towards making people re-think that?
Cook: Yeah, guys on offense during the season whenever we were getting interviewed after practice we'd get asked, 'What's going on with the offense?' But just about every other question was about the defense. People realized that we do have an offense. We always knew what we had and what we were capable of. It just took playing against Iowa (a 26-14 road win as Cook threw for then a career-high 277 yards) for things to start clicking. After that, everyone as an offense came together and we got that swagger. Then, being able to take that all the way to Pasadena and to be consistent and win the Rose Bowl and show everyone that it wasn't just the defense. We do have an offense at Michigan State. We got playmakers all along the board. It was a great feeling.
Q: You've come out to San Diego on your spring break this week. What specifically are you trying to work out on here?
Cook: I want to brush up on my footwork. Keep working on my presence in the pocket. Keep working on my accuracy and fine-tuning everything. It's the week before spring ball and I can head into it picking up right where I left off to help my team get better so I can lead them to even better things in 2014.
Q: I noticed today Whitfield talked to about your left arm coming through more. Were you very conscious of that before?
Cook: No, never really before. When I throw, I'm just mainly concerned with my lower body, where my plant foot is, how my left foot is pointed out towards my target and just having a strong base.
Besides my throwing arm, I'd never really focused on where my left elbow has to be or following through, or using my left arm more and not trying to throw it as hard because I am using my left arm more. I'd never really thought about that, but maybe that is something I can work on with George by the end of this week.
Q: You came out here last year to train. What was the biggest change you made from that?
Cook: I'd definitely say release and how quick it is. Before I held the ball down by my belly button. And that's a long way to go when you're trying to throw to a target. I think George (Whitfield) really helped me getting the ball up higher and shortening up my release.
I think the "chaos training" helped me a lot too. He does all that stuff with the brooms and the bags and whipping a big blue ball at you. Also, working in the ocean helped. I feel like all that stuff does simulate when you get out on the field and having bodies flying around you. Guys blitzing. Running backs picking up a blitz. Guys coming loose, grabbing at your ankles. I felt like I did a good job of managing that stuff during the season. [Cook was sacked just 16 times in 14 games last year.]
Q: Had you worked with any other private QB coaches before?
Cook: I worked with Tom Arth. He's from Cleveland. He went to St. Ignatius, the same high school as Brian Hoyer. He went to John Carroll in Cleveland and he broke all sorts of records there. He played for the Colts and the Packers and is now head coach at John Carroll. I worked with him going into my junior and senior year and in my freshman and sophomore year of college any time I went back home. He's a smart guy. He really knows what to do. The main stuff we'd worked on was drill stuff, just like with George. It was mainly focusing on your feet because that's really everything. If you don't have good footwork and a good base, your ball is not gonna get there.
Q: How much responsibility do you now feel to be a leader after last season?
Cook: I think that's very important. We had some great senior leaders on that team. Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Blake Treadwell, Isaiah Lewis. They did a great job leading. I stepped back and let them lead and just played quarterback. Now, with them leaving, I'm considered an upperclassman as a junior, I have to step up as a leader and be more vocal.
I've never been that kind of 'rah, rah' guy. I just let my ability and performance on the field speak for itself. But being a quarterback, you gotta be vocal and communicate with your teammates and I have to do a better job of that.
Q: Who else have you seen as emerge as leaders of the team this year?
Cook: Shilique Calhoun is a big leader for us. Travis Jackson on the offensive line. Tony Lippett at receiver. And also Trae Waynes. We have a lot of leaders, but I'd say those are the main guys.
Q: After all Michigan State accomplished last season, what is the next natural progression for 2014, to think national title?
Cook: Exactly. Obviously, we have the guys and I know we're losing some (good players), but you know what you're dealing with. You know you can compete at a high level, but you never want to look ahead. We won the Rose Bowl. We know what we're capable of. It's everyone's dream to win a national championship, and we feel like we can do that but you just have to take it one step at a time. The main goal at our program, which is what it is every year, is to win the Big Ten championship. If you win that, you're in a BCS bowl. But it's still the main goal is to win the Big Ten championship and then really everything else will take care of itself.
When the coaches all talk to us, when our strength coach, Coach (Ken) Mannie talks to us, they're saying, 'It's 2014. We don't wanna feel like we've made it now. It's the ultimate goal at Michigan State to win the Rose Bowl, but we're all not walking around campus like, Oh yeah, we've made it now?' We want to continue to stay hungry, continue to stay focused. We've pushed that aside. We're not still relishing the victory. We're done, because now we have a giant bullseye on our back. Guys are going to be targeting us and it's going to be even harder. Once you are at the top, it's much harder to stay there and all the guys on our team realize that. So we're working even harder than last year and we're ready to compete.