- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
BEAVERTON, Ore. -- There’s a stereotype for quarterbacks in the middle of the country as two-dimensional scheme guys, robots programmed to run tried-and-true offensive systems by routinely handing the ball off.
But spend a few minutes around Michigan State Spartans QB Connor Cook, and that thought process is quickly short-circuited. While working as a counselor at the recent Elite 11 Finals at Nike HQ, Cook stood on the sidelines, wearing shades and spinning a ball in his hands. Sauntering around the field, the Ohio-born Cook sported the kind of confidence that goes a long way at his position, a measure of poise and swagger that can be infectious in the huddle and lethal on the field.
“Are you sure he’s not from California?” an onlooker asked. A year after helping the Michigan State offense improve its status from liability to relative strength, Cook appears ready for Hollywood. It’s not just the confidence that grabs your eye.
Cook displays solid arm strength, too, and if he progresses this season at the same rate he did a year ago, he could end up as a first-round pick next summer. Scouts and NFL evaluators will have a close eye on the Spartans' offense this fall and what Cook does for Michigan State -- particularly in developing his accuracy –- will go a long way toward determining his ceiling as a pro prospect.
Thrust into action midway through the 2013 season, Cook was forced to learn on the job. Each week, he made progress, and by season’s end it was evident his decision-making had improved substantially.
That’s not to say he was perfect. I re-watched the Rose Bowl a couple of weeks ago, and Cook made some horrifically bad throws –- including a second-quarter pick-six that almost gave Stanford the game.
What was promising is that Cook never turned flat after making that sort of mistake. He played through, leading the Spartans to an important score just before the half, and, eventually, a comeback victory. He may have made a throw that almost cost his team the game. But by the end of the evening, he wound up holding an MVP trophy.
Over the past few seasons, I’ve watched Michigan State on a handful of occasions. It was obvious each time that the receivers –- Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery –- had talent. But they didn’t look comfortable. They made mistakes on their routes and dropped simple passes. Then, the QB position finally got settled, and things changed. Those guys grew up alongside Cook. Now, all three are proven, reliable veterans.
This season, they’ll have a chance to nurture a potential star in DeAnthony Arnett, a former ESPN150 prospect who transferred from Tennessee in the offseason. Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg called Arnett the Spartans' “most pleasant surprise this spring." In order to further improve this season, the Spartans will have to find a way to overcome the loss of three starters along the offensive line. If they can’t, Cook and his receivers won’t be the only ones affected; the running game, led by All-America-caliber back Jeremy Langford, would take a hit, as well.
While at Elite 11, I asked renowned QB instructor George Whitfield who he thought might break out at quarterback this season. Not surprisingly, he picked a couple of the guys he works with: Cook, and Notre Dame’s Everett Golson.
A year ago around this time, Whitfield was coaching Cook as he was battling to be Michigan State’s backup. No introvert himself, Whitfield talked about how Cook’s confidence had blossomed since last summer.
“He’s a different guy,” he said. Now that he has the starting job –- now that he knows his role -- Cook is in a different position entirely than he was last summer. He’s able to turn his focus away from winning the job and hone in instead on doing it as best he can. Nothing’s guaranteed, though.
As a caveat, a recent comparison can serve as a warning against anointing Cook too soon. Last summer, we were saying very similar things about Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, a midseason revelation at quarterback who solidified the position for his team. But then Hogan promptly regressed in his follow-up campaign, and is justifiably flying under the radar this year.
Some additional notes: Cook and Golson -- particularly Golson -- stood out in a drill that I think is the best barometer of ability. The drill intentionally flushes quarterbacks left after the snap and forces them to make a throw on the move, across their bodies, over a soccer net, to a receiver in the back left corner of the end zone.
Some of the participants struggled to get their timing right, but Cook and Golson connected most often. Golson made the challenging drill look easy, even. It was really impressive.
As I wrote last week, with Golson back (and older and bigger), Notre Dame’s offense could get a big boost this fall. There is a lot of depth at the receiver and running back positions for the Fighting Irish. The line is experienced, too. And coach Brian Kelly, who built his reputation on that side of the ball, has vowed to become more involved in play calling this season. Altogether, Notre Dame seems to have a recipe for success this season on offense.
We talked up last year’s QB class quite a bit. Once it underwhelmed, we seemed inclined to short-sell the 2015 group and not make the same mistake again. The class this year is impressive, though, particularly in its depth.
Another reporter at Elite 11 and I agreed: there could be as many as four first-round picks among the counselors alone -- even though Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, FSU’s Jameis Winston and UCLA’s Brett Hundley all were absent for the camp.
Our potential first-rounders in attendance were Cook, Golson, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion. (Texas Tech’s Davis Webb, a sophomore, could be another once he’s eligible to come out.)
Golson is the only one in that group that Mel Kiper Jr. didn’t list among his top 11 2015 QBs. Mannion has the size (6-foot-5), but Kiper noted he didn’t have a big-time arm. I’d say that’s fair after watching him in Oregon, but it wasn’t subpar, either. Still, I’m curious how he’ll fare this fall with a patchwork offensive line and no Brandin Cooks. Cooks was special.
I’m far from alone in this, but I thought Rosen had the biggest arm of the group. His mechanics were the closest to complete, and his ball got to its target in a hurry. There could be a battle between Rosen and Asantii Woulard in 2015.
Murray was even smaller than I had been told, but A&M is convinced that won’t be a problem. The program views him as “a more polished passer than Johnny [Manziel].” I have to wonder what freshman Kyle Allen thinks about how excited the Aggies are about Murray, and how Murray’s development changes how the staff views Allen. Are they more or less likely to play him this fall, knowing he could eventually lose the job to Murray?
Poised and muscular, Wimbush looked like a college sophomore. He sure appeared as if he’ll provide a seamless segue from Christian Hackenberg.
Steady is the word I’d use for Barnett. He was extremely calm in everything he did. There was no more consistent thrower at the camp. After I left, Barnett was named the MVP of the event. If Jake Coker has a great season and leaves for the NFL -- which could very well happen -- Barnett could immediately rise to the starting job for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Baylor really wanted Stidham, but Kliff Kingsbury won that battle. I’m convinced that Kingsbury, assuming he stays for a while, will soon have Texas Tech making noise –- maybe as early as this fall, given that the Big 12 doesn’t appear loaded with 10-win teams.
Similar to Baylor, the story at Tech will be determined by how quickly the program can develop quality depth on defense. The offensive line was also lacking when Kingsbury arrived.
I’m convinced that there is no nicer guy in college football than Petty, who many believe could be a Heisman finalist this fall. (He was close last year.)
I know our draft analysts think Petty still has some developing to do. Even so, he looks bigger and faster than he did a year ago as a first-year starter. Analyst Kevin Weidl acknowledged that a jump is possible. He used Mariota as an example of stock that rose quickly; the Oregon QB was viewed as a third-rounder entering the 2013 season and now he’s a consensus top-five pick.
Petty looked like a man among boys when the counselors were asked to do six hours of military drills on the first day. A veteran Army Ranger went so far as to give Petty his hat. He told Petty it was the best display of athleticism and strength that he had seen in nearly 30 years.
“I told my dad that, and he said that’s as big of a compliment as you’re ever going to get,” Petty said.
Petty was originally set to go to play for the Tennessee Volunteers. I thought he would get a kick out of the fact I went to school there. I told him I thought things had worked out well for him (and not as well for the Vols). He agreed.
I asked Petty for a good Art Briles story. Like me, Petty said he enjoys Briles’ corny one-liners.
“One day he came to practice and said we needed to remember the three F’s,” Petty said. “He said we needed to play ‘fast, furious and physical.’ We looked around at each other and burst out laughing.” It’s obvious Briles spends some time coming up with these, maybe when he’s working out or something.
We have a numbering problem in college football: The Big 12 has 10 teams, the Big Ten now has 14 -- and the Elite 11 had 19 QBs. I stink at math. But c’mon, man.