What do pro-style quarterbacks Jeff Driskel, Cody Kessler, Max Wittek, Christian LeMay, Brandon Allen, David Ash, Kyle Boehm, Reilly O’Toole, TonyMcNeal, Chad Jeffries, Gary Nova and Cardale Jones all have in common?
They were all of MSU senior quarterback Connor Cook in the 2011 recruiting cycle.
Cook, who has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the country, was unranked nationally and very underrated coming out of Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
“I think Connor kind of started with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, a little bit of an edge psychologically and competitively, because he wasn’t as highly regarded as these four-star or five-star recruits coming out,” Hall of Fame MSU quarterback Jimmy Raye II said. “I think that it served him well, I think the way he goes about his business and his competitive nature, I think that intangible gives him a big edge in terms of the way he performs.”
Cook was born to be an athlete. His father Chris played tight end at Indiana, his mother Donna played basketball at Cincinnati and his sister Jackie played basketball at Old Dominion.
The senior signal-caller for the Spartans is the perfect player for head coach Mark Dantonio. He is the embodiment of the chip that Dantonio has been talking about, considering his father’s alma mater Indiana didn’t even offer him a scholarship.
How it started
Dec. 29, 2012 is a day Spartan fans should remember forever. After a disappointing 2012 regular season with Andrew Maxwell under center for the Spartans, MSU found itself trailing Texas Christian in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and Dantonio gave everyone their first glimpse at the man who would take the program to the next level after some recent success.
Cook went on to lead MSU to a 17-16 victory over TCU that night and he never looked back. Cook officially won the starting job four games into the 2013 season after splitting reps with Maxwell during the first three games. However, he began to face doubt after a slow start to that year.
Through four games, MSU was 3-1 with the offense struggling to find a rhythm against weaker opponents in Western Michigan and South Florida. The Spartans also lost a close contest to Notre Dame in Cook’s debut as the No. 1 quarterback.
The Spartans would go on to win every game the rest of that season including a 24-20 win over Stanford in the final BCS edition of the Rose Bowl.
Cook, the winningest quarterback in MSU history, has only lost three more games in the season and a half since, for a total career record of 32-4.
“It’s very comforting having a quarterback like that, having a leader like that in Connor Cook,” sophomore linebacker Jon Reschke said. “He really helps out our defense, because we can always rely on him making big plays, making those third down conversions.”
Some may argue that Cook had a great defense to carry him and there is no denying the talent of MSU’s defense especially in 2013, but he’s led the Spartans to several big victories.
Cook has shown a unique ability to find a way to win — trailing Baylor 41-28 with about 12 minutes left in the 2014 Cotton Bowl the Spartans had just recovered an onside kick and momentum appeared to be on their side.
On the first play of the drive Cook hit Aaron Burbridge for 39 yards to the Baylor 14, but on the very next play he threw an ugly interception that looked like it would be the death of MSU.
Proving his ability to shake off mistakes, Cook led the Spartans to two straight touchdown drives of nine plays and 60 yards and eight plays and 81 yards to win 42-41 in stunning come-from-behind fashion.
The greatest ever
Cook has the MSU record with 68 passing touchdowns, he’s tied for the most 300-yard passing games and he needs just 314 more yards to become the leader in total offense — his 8,775 yards of total offense trails just Kirk Cousins (9,004) and recently overtook Jeff Smoker (8,714) on Saturday.
But it’s not just the stats. Cook arguably has the most tools of any quarterback to come through MSU, and he could be a first-round pick in the next NFL draft.
“He’s used to being successful, so he has confidence. He’s able to take a bad play and flip it, play through it and come out the back end playing very well,” Dantonio said. “He could have a poor first quarter and play lights out three quarters in a row. It’s not going to bother him. He’s got a lot of control of the offense. He’s shown great leadership in the huddle and great leadership on the field.
"[His skills] are NFL-type level from what I know. The NFL quarterbacks that we’ve had here, I would say he’s right there with those guys. He’s got a great touch, he’s got great arm strength, he’s got a very quick release, and he’s big.”
If you take a minute to watch Cook on game-day, he’s completing throws many college quarterbacks in the country wouldn’t even attempt — threading the needle and splitting defenders, long passes down the field to his receivers in stride and perfect throws that are put where only his receiver can make a play.
The last quarterback to lead the Spartans to a national championship, Raye, had high praise for Cook.
"(I would rank Connor Cook) at the very top, he followed an outstanding quarterback at Michigan State — Kirk Cousins,” Raye said. “I think he has taken what Kirk brought (MSU) what Michigan State was able to accomplish while Kirk was there and I think he’s taken it to new heights and another level.
It doesn’t take Raye to realize what Cook has done for MSU in his time as the starter. Cook did what most of the other greats couldn’t, he led the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl win since 1988, he’s the winningest quarterback in MSU history and he has MSU in contention for another big time bowl game or possibly a playoff spot with some help.
“Of all the great quarterbacks that Michigan State has had going back to the days of Earl Morrall, Albert Dorow, Jim Ninowski ... Brian Hoyer and Drew Stanton, I think going back through all of those guys he’ll be at the very top.”