So far, so good says Cook. Or rather "Really good. We're working hard and trying to make sure everybody is in shape and on the same page."
Of course it is also a new page for Bulldog tight ends these days. A new playbook, really. Spring practices showed some aspects of how Mullen intends to apply these eligible receivers in the gameplan, and guys like Cook feel almost…liberated.
"Oooh, man, it's changed dramatically," he says. "We've gone from pretty much a hand in the dirt at all times to now we actually get to move around." All over the place, in fact. Much like Mullen's spread-system can align his running backs from sideline-to-sideline and almost anywhere in-between, the blocking ends can find themselves in similar settings. Including, Cook proudly notes, "in the backfield somewhat like a back!"
Not that he expects to be taking the handoff very often this fall, understand. Still just how State is aligning players and allotting the ball gives everyone their chance to be involved in the finest aspect of offense: getting the football and doing something with it.
"That's a fun part, getting to go in-motion and do some kicking-out," says Cook. "And the best part is getting to go out there and line up in the slot, reap some of the rewards after putting your hand in the dirt!"
Again, a qualification. Cook and cohorts will still do their fair share of basic blocking from either end of the interior line. Thus they will continue to leave Scott Field with dirt on their gloves, as well as probably a few threads torn from opposing uniforms. By no means has this fundamental role been reversed for Mississippi State tight ends. But at least now Cook, along with veterans Brandon Henderson and Austin Wilbanks and transfer Thomas Webb, can see themselves as more than just the extra lineman that was their primary 2008 identity.
"That's really what I thought of myself at that time, because it was a role I was playing," Cook says. "So I embraced it." And got a lot more than just his hands dirty in the process, too. Naturally now he is looking for more wide-open opportunities within this completely different gameplan. Yet ironically to maximize his potential in a spread system still mandated Cook put on the sort of size more suitable for, well, for the same old blocking duties.
Ahh, but even at this early stage in his college career Cook says this is where the modern college game is trending. Sure, that extra 15 pounds will help him in trench battles. "But even in this league we have linebackers that are 250 and able to run; we've got safeties that are 230. So it was almost even for me." Now by adding that size and strength Cook hopes to tilt the open-field odds in his favor, where he can handle hits from the ‘backers and take advantage of defensive backs.
Oh, and besides that bigger and stronger stuff; Cook claims he's shaved some ticks off his 40-yard time despite carrying more muscle. "Actually I've gotten faster since I gained weight. Last year I was probably running high 4.9s, and since I weighed 250-plus now the last time I clocked I was in the mid to low 4.8s."
At 250 pounds Cook is now the heaviest true tight end on the 209 roster, though because of that 6-4 height he doesn't look it. Plus much of that new muscle has been added at chest and shoulder level, solving one of the biggest—so to speak—problems he had when playing as a 2008 true freshman.
"It is the right kind of weight, they've done a lot of stuff with my upper-body making sure it was an improvement. Because that was one of my weaknesses coming in, I really wasn't strong upper-body wise. Now it's a mandatory thing." Now he is ready to surprise some of those defenders who found the rookie tight end easy pickings off the line of scrimmage, and certainly ought to be able to shed the initial contact from stand-up rushers and be able to go out on his route with minimal interruption.
Oh, and something to add to the bigger-stronger-faster Cook equation: he's getting older. He turns 19 on August 22, which still leaves him one of the younger first-teammers in the SEC. Cook had to play as a 18-year-old true freshman last fall because State was entirely rebuilding the tight end position, though he wasn't activated until the fourth week. Cook did make two starts, Alabama and Arkansas, among his eight games without any statistics. That absolutely should change both because of the new offense and his developing talents as a receiver in the scheme.
On balance, he has no regrets about missing a redshirt season. "It was a big deal. I'm still a teenager, and it's hard. It is. But I wouldn't trade it for the world because God has blessed me thus far and I give all credit to him for what he's blessed me with."
Going into August camp the Bulldog offense looks to be pretty blessed at the tight end position(s), too. There's not a whole lot of statistics to show from the group but plenty of potential yet to be tapped. And even if they came to campus to play for one staff and now are proving themselves to another, the change is working out well for everyone. Including the new strength-conditioning program, which Cook says has done as much to build up Bulldog minds as it has bodies.
"It is a big test of your heart and whether you really and truly want to be a part of this. Because those who have an attitude and don't really want to work start weeding themselves out because of the hard work ethic that filters from the top to the bottom." Yet very, very few State players have checked out under the pressure, which Cook believes reveals much about the material here Mullen and Balis have to work with.
"It does say a lot. We compliment each other all the time, try to keep each other upbeat and keep going. Because we know we can't do this alone, this is a brotherhood now. We really enjoy working hard and getting everybody in shape and on the same page."
The calendar page turns in less than two weeks and pre-season practices begin. For all the spring success Cook understands the process is far from finished here in year-one of the Mullen era, so this will be an even more intense camp. But, a promising one, too, especially for a bunch of Dogs who have spent too much time with one hand in the dirt longing to roam free…and run downfield with the football. To that end Cook dismisses his first-team status as just ink on paper. What matters is who can get the job done and the ball scored on the field.
"Out of our corps we're all looking forward to it because we're having to push each other. Every day we come out here we have to get better because we know at any given time any of our numbers can be called. It's not just one of those things where this is the ‘set' guy, we've established ourselves that we're here to out-work each other and it depends on who is busting their behind in practice who is actually going to play."