Connor Cook left some big shoes to fill. Just how big?
“I think he wears about a 14,” tight end Josiah Price said during Big Ten Media Days.
But even the jokester Price understands that there’s no easy way of replacing Cook, who departed Michigan State as the program’s all-time winningest quarterback. He was the starter for the vast majority of the past three seasons, when the Spartans posted a sensational 36-5 record, won a pair of Big Ten Championships Games, won the Rose Bowl, won the Cotton Bowl and appeared in the College Football Playoff.
That’s a tough thing to just pass on to the next in line. Though unsurprisingly Michigan State is confident that that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
The candidates in an ongoing quarterback competition are Tyler O’Connor, Damion Terry and Brian Lewerke, though most signs point to O’Connor winning the gig. After all, it was O’Connor who filled in for an injured Cook last year in Michigan State’s biggest game of the season, a road win at Ohio State. O’Connor wasn’t asked to do too much in that 17-14 walk-off victory, completing seven of his 12 passing attempts for 89 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 25 more yards. Terry also saw some action in that contest, completing one of four throws for two yards and rushing for 25 yards.
“Lost a lot of experience, obviously, but I think it's a very talented position,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “We've got four guys that I think are Big Ten-type quarterbacks that are big, athletic guys that can move, run and also can throw the football. So Tyler O'Connor is a fifth-year senior. He's been in the system four years, been behind a great quarterback. He's been waiting for his opportunity. Performed very well down in Columbus last year.
“But we're going to keep the pressure on our quarterback position and on our quarterback coach, Brad Salem. I think that's the thing to do right now. Not dependent on one guy. Not to say, hey, he's our guy. That will be defined through August camp and early in the season. But we're going to give people opportunities. But Tyler obviously is in the lead right now, but I'm not going to have the pressure put on one position to say this is the make or break guy. That's just the way we're going to do it at this point in time.”
Cook got a bad rap when he wasn’t one of the team’s captains last season, a criticism that seemed to be blown way out of proportion and ended up stirring up more negative chatter about him leading up to and even after the NFL Draft, where Cook ended up a fourth-round pick. But the only things said about him by Dantonio have been overwhelming positive, making the leadership element just as important as the production element when it comes to replacing a seemingly irreplaceable guy.
Cook ranked only behind Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld in passing yardage (3,131) and touchdowns (24) in the Big Ten last season, earning All-Big Ten First Team honors and the league’s Quarterback of the Year Award.
Cook will be missed, but the Spartans are convinced O’Connor (or someone else) can make the transition smoothly.
“Connor’s a great player, person. It’s crazy, I’ll be watching film and I’ll see a pass he threw me on a touchdown and I’ll say, ‘Why did you throw that? The corner was bailing and the safety was on me.’ I’m going to miss those moments with him. But I’m going to have them with Tyler O’Connor, Brian Lewerke, Damion Terry, whoever it is. I’m not really worried,” Price said. “They have unbelievable talent, too.
“Now do they have the game experience Connor has? No, they don’t. But they’ll be fine. Connor didn’t always have that game experience. In his first season, we went 13-1, too. So we’re not really worried about it too much. Just personally excited for those guys — Damion Terry, Tyler O’Connor, Brian Lewerke — to see who’s going to be the next Connor Cook? Who’s going to be the guy who next year at media day you guys are going to say, ‘How are you guys going to replace Tyler O’Connor? Unbelievable last season.’”