When Connor Cook jogs into Spartan Stadium on Aug. 30, the reception will be a far cry from a season ago.
After facing chants for other quarterbacks to play last year, the Michigan State starting quarterback instead will be welcomed by fans adorning the No. 18 jersey.
”It’s kind of mindblowing actually,” Cook said. “Who really would have thought that it would be the case that they would be selling my jersey in the bookstore?”
While the NCAA might debate that the No. 18 jersey actually is Cook’s, there is no debate that things are different with Cook these days. It starts with his approach in fall camp and the coming season, one that is less concerned with job security.
”I feel like last year I was just so focused on trying to win the job and focusing on myself more so than my teammates,” he said.
The change has been visible to his teammates, who noted leadership changes and the way he has become more confident across the board.
”He has a lot more confidence in the way he walks, the way he talks about the game,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “He knows he has the starting job so no he is like I need to show what I can do and it is finally my time where I can start and end the season.”
The change in Cook was visible from the early season until he was named MVP of both the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl. Perhaps no play was more evident of that than his Rose Bowl-clinching touchdown pass to Tony Lippett. Cook looked off a Stanford safety as Lippett broke skinny down the hash mark – a move based on what the Stanford defense showed. The throw was on the money and the Spartans won the Rose Bowl on a throw Cook admitted he did not think he would have made in September.
”I just got more comfortable in the offense, more confident in my throws,” he said. “I feel like my accuracy just continued to get better and better.”
A 22 to 6 touchdown to interception ratio indicates that, but he insists he is focused more on win than stats – and that the ceiling in his game is much higher.
So as part of his offseason, he spent time working with as a counselor at the Elite 11. He also worked with quarterback guru George Whitfield yet again, where his accuracy was a major focus.
Through drills involving a receiver standing directly behind a goal post to hitting a receiver on the sideline over a person holding a broomstick nearby, Cook has seem marked improvement.
”I would say he really taught me how to throw a deep ball,” Cook said. “I always struggled dropping it in a basket. …
”He also helped with having a strong base, strong footwork and driving off the back foot.”
Back in East Lansing, those experiences on top of the ones gained last season have built Cook into a more confident player. Senior safety Kurtis Drummond noted a marked improvement in the maturity of the junior quarterback.
“His maturity level is through the roof,” he said. “His confidence level and composure is just indescribable. The way he understands football and the way he understands defenses, it’s truly remarkable to see just how much he has grown and the type of person he is.”
That person and character has kept manifesting itself in leadership, something noted by both Calhoun and Drummond. It is a necessity at quarterback and a trait coach Mark Dantonio expects more of as Cook enters his next two years as a starting quarterback in East Lansing.
“He made great strides from the time that he entered camp until the Rose Bowl,” Dantonio said. “You look at a guy who came in as a guy fighting to get on the field and be the quarterback, but knowing that he had a shot, to a guy at the end of the season that was extremely confident, resilient and took on leadership.
”He was just a sophomore last year so he has two more years to play and grow as an individual an the natural progression is for people to become more of a leader as you become a junior, especially at the position, it is so critical.”
On the field, the Spartans signal caller now can expect to see more given to him. The freedom to make calls at the line always has been given to quarterbacks under Dantonio, but with experience under his belt, he now can extend himself beyond what he did last year.
“I think his game management and ability manage the game at the line of scrimmage will, because of the experience, just naturally get more pronounced,” Dantonio said.
And as his game overall continues to become more pronounced, another stark difference from a year ago has become apparent for Cook: A possible NFL future.
Admittedly, a year ago, that was not even a thought for Cook, who was focused on winning a starting job. Now, those NFL dreams he grew up with might be more of a possibility.
“That would be a dream come true to make it there, but I am just focusing on the now and playing for Michigan State, winning a Big Ten championship, the whole nine yards,” he said.
“I feel like if I continue to build off what I did last year and continue to grow as a quarterback, I feel like I could be one of those guys.”