At some point next week, Connor Cook will walk to a podium at Lucas Oil Stadium and get peppered with questions about his leadership.
He was a three-year starter at Michigan State. He passed for nearly 10,000 yards with 71 touchdowns. He delivered two Big Ten titles with one Rose Bowl triumph. He’s the winningest quarterback in school history, finishing a surreal 34-5 as the starter.
And yet Cook’s teammates wouldn’t even vote him as one of their three captains. Scouts have doubts. And Cook blowing off two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin during a postgame ceremony set Twitter ablaze. As one anonymous scout told the Journal Sentinel, “How much does he really like ball? How much is he going to work at it? He likes being a celebrity.”
Indeed, Cook’s personality will be shoved under the microscope. And the Bills, a team that will consider a quarterback in the early rounds, must decide if he’s leadership material.
One person who has no concerns? The coach who worked with Cook daily.
“I saw him every day for a lot of years here,” said Dave Warner, the Spartans’ co-offensive coordinator. “He was a leader. Even though he wasn’t a captain, he was a leader. He was certainly our leader on offense and did a good job with it. I think that comes with the position. There were some tough times through the last couple of years and he stood up as a leader and did a good job of bringing us back.”
This past fall, Warner believes Cook took a step in being more vocal.
“He knew it was obviously his last year,” Warner said, “and I saw that more from him.”
The irony of this all is that Cook is the most battle-tested quarterback in the draft. Few at the position the last decade have played in as many big games.
Warner believes Cook has it inside of him because he’s seen how Cook responds to crushing mistakes – he’s seen this rare amnesia up close. In Michigan State’s 24-20 Rose Bowl win over Stanford during Cook’s sophomore year, the quarterback threw a pick-six with 2:07 left in the first half and immediately struck back with a touchdown drive before halftime. He threw two other passes through the hands of Stanford defenders that day and had another pick wiped out by a penalty, but he also passed for 332 yards and two scores.
Look at the Cotton Bowl in 2014, Warner continues. Cook threw another costly interception but led three fourth-quarter scoring drives in a thrilling 42-41 win over Baylor. His third-and-goal score with 17 seconds left was the game-winner.
“When it comes down to the big game, the end of a game, when you’re trailing in a game, you need your quarterback to step up and I think he’s done that,” Warner said. “There have been times he hasn’t played great and he’s stepped up and finished the game great. … It’s what he’s done in those situations that sets him apart.
“I know there’s a lot of good quarterbacks coming out – there is every year – but for my money, Connor Cook has proven over a three-year period that he knows how to win football games.”
This coming from a coach who also worked with future pros Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins at Michigan State. Those two were more apt to stick to the script. Cook was more riverboat gambler, for better or worse.
“Connor’s a little bit different in the fact that he – not in a negative way – he has a little bit more of a gunslinger mentality,” Warner said. “He’s going to take chances. He’s going to throw the ball down the field a lot. I think Kirk Cousins or Brian Hoyer, those guys tried to stay more in the offense and were more cerebral-type quarterbacks. I guess a little bit more conservative and didn’t want to make the mistakes. Connor took some chances, made some mistakes, but was able to bounce back from them.”
This spring, Cook will be a real possibility for the Bills. Considering this franchise remains in win-now mode after hiring Rex Ryan, talking playoffs, signing a slew of high-profile vets and finishing 8-8, it’s hard to see them spending the No. 19 pick on a developmental arm if one of the top three falls to them. An instant contributor on defense probably makes more sense in the first round. And while the Bills have been high on Carson Wentz for a while, they’ve also been keeping a close eye on Cook.
If he falls into the second, third round, he could enter the discussion. Warner has seen the Bills on campus plenty.
The coordinator believes Cook has what it takes to last long term in the NFL.
“I think so,” he said. “I think he has a tremendous arm. He’s got the size and strength and makes all the throws. I think he’s been in a pro-style offense in his career here, which gives him a leg up. Being under center as opposed to the shotgun all the time and understanding and knowing the protections and the route concepts he’s going to be utilizing in the pro game, I think that certainly helps him.
“He’s proven he can handle that offense here and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does a great job at the next level.”
Five other quarterbacks to track next week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis:
• Jared Goff (California): Goff was the first freshman QB to ever start on opening day at Cal and would go on to set Pac-12 records with 4,719 passing yards and 43 touchdowns as a junior. Arguably possesses the strongest arm in the draft, capable of sticking NFL throws deep. Goff has drawn comparisons to Matt Ryan; could go as high as No. 2 overall.
• Paxton Lynch (Memphis): Towering at 6-7, 245, yet still one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the draft. He looks to throw after evading the rush. While Lynch finished with 3,776 yards, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions, he struggled in his bowl game against Auburn (16 of 37, 106 yards, interception).
• Carson Wentz (North Dakota State): The story of the Senior Bowl returned from a broken right wrist to lead the Bison to a fifth straight FCS title. The 6-foot-5, 232-pounder might have faced inferior competition, admitting everything will be much faster in the pros, but he did operate in a pro-style system that required him to huddle, change plays and read defenses.
• Christian Hackenberg (Penn State): Completed only 53 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns last season. So was it a product of his shaky offensive line? He was sacked 103 times in three seasons. Or does Hackenberg have permanent problems in the pocket? Scouts need to figure it out. Back as a freshman, Hackenberg seemed destined to be a first-rounder. Now, he could drop to the third or fourth.
• Cardale Jones (Ohio State): Another mystery. Jones was an absolute load for defenses to handle in the open field as a runner at times while also possessing a big-league arm in leading the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2014. His encore wasn’t as smooth. J.T. Barrett eventually supplanted Jones as the better fit in Urban Meyer’s offense. He might be a project worth developing in Buffalo. Greg Roman likes to use his quarterback in the run game and of course likes the deep ball, too.