Coming from the college level Connor Cook has become the exception rather than the norm. The Michigan State product is a graduate of a pro-style offense, an offensive approach that has largely given way to the popular spread schemes that dominate the NCAA game today. Fortunately for Cook, and his draft status, his experience in a pro-style system will only enhance his projection as an NFL quarterback in the eyes of scouts.
"It's been the same offense that I've been able to run for that entire time," said Cook of his time with the Spartans. "I've done a lot of stuff from under center, done the five and seven step drops, naked, play action pass, rollouts. We have pro-style concepts, reading the whole field. It's not like we're scanning just one side of the field. We have one, two, three to four different reads. Just being able to operate in the pocket and get the ball from under center and our concepts is what makes me the most pro ready."
There's no debating that Cook has a leg up on many of his fellow quarterback prospects who are coming from spread systems where they operate exclusively from the shotgun and take play calls from coordinators on the sidelines with hand signals and rarely huddle.
Cook's production is undeniable as he led Michigan State to a 36-5 mark as a starter including a pair of Big Ten conference titles. And though his decision making and anticipation on throws improved as a senior there are still critics with his completion percentage never reaching the 60 percent plateau.
"He's never been a 60 percent completion guy, but part of that is because they throw the football down the field aggressively," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "For instance, the second half of Michigan game I love what he did. He took a beating and kept throwing the ball and kept throwing tough passes down the field and completing them. Even though I think he was 18 for 39 that game, I liked that game."
"I'm not going to make any excuses," Cook said of his 57.5 percent career completion rate. "There are times where I do miss some easy throws here and there, but that is a part of our offense. We don't really throw a whole lot of screens to our tailbacks. We don't really throw the ball laterally. We do throw the ball downfield. So when you do that you risk having a lower completion percentage."
The numbers indicate that Cook is right in his assessment of Michigan State's passing attack. Cook averaged almost eight yards an attempt. Still, NFL scouts were scrutinizing how his lack of strict footwork compromised his accuracy from the pocket.
"I think in terms of when I watch his tape there are some passes that needed to be precise at times that weren't," said ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper. "I have a second round grade on him. People ask why he's not a one. I think he's a two. Not going to the Senior Bowl, I know he was coming back from (a shoulder) injury and that affects him as well. I'd say second round for Cook right now."
Despite those knocks on his game Cook had a career touchdown to interception ratio of 3.5:1.
Knowing those criticisms were out there Cook chose to address them with workouts with quarterback guru George Whitfield rather than participate in the Senior Bowl.
"I talked about it with my agent and felt it was the best move," said Cook. "The last few games I had somewhat of a dinged up shoulder. I didn't want to risk anything else with that. I felt like the best thing was to go to San Diego and start training."
Cook wasn't the best quarterback when it came to the passing drills at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in February, but he didn't hurt himself either.
"I thought Cook was good," said Mayock of Cook's throwing session. "I saw good arm strength. I didn't see elite arm strength. I've done a lot of work on him. I haven't met the kid. I'd like to do that and meet him also try to figure him out a little bit."
NFL clubs felt much the same way, which is why a host of teams met with Cook at the NFL combine. Knowing how important leadership is at the quarterback position, clubs wanted to get to the bottom of why Cook was not selected as a team captain by his teammates despite playing at the most important leadership position on the team.
"To some teams and GMs it doesn't matter that you're not a captain, but to other teams it does matter," said Mayock. "Why didn't his teammates vote their best player and their quarterback to be their captain and their leader? That's a legitimate question."
Cook felt he provided the right answers to NFL clubs that sat him down for interviews.
"We had a great group of leaders that were seniors," said Cook, a redshirt junior last season. "We had a leadership council of 12 guys and they would pick a different guy each week to be a captain. I was in that council and I was selected for four games. Usually guys would get selected for just a game throughout the season. I was selected for the Oregon game, Ohio State, the Big Ten championship game and the bowl game so you can go through and if you ever want to ask any one of my teammates who was with me back in 2013, when I was a sophomore or 2014 when I was a junior or this past year and ask them if I was a team leader they would say yes."
Cook's teammates confirmed their quarterback's claim.
"I don't really understand those questions about his character," said Spartans WR Aaron Burbridge. "He was a great leader. After every practice, he stood up and talked to us and told us what we had to work on. I don't really get the questions about his character." "I think it's a little bit of overkill at this point," said Michigan State OT Jack Conklin. "Connor was a leader on our team no doubt. I think (the NFL) is going to be a stage for him to prove to people he's a leader, he can be that guy that leads a team in games, he can make those throws in tight windows, be a fourth-quarter guy who comes in and leads a team down the stretch.''
Cook planned to demonstrate to teams in the interview setting just the kind of person he is and dispel what he feels are misconceptions about him as a leader. And when it comes to talking football he's confident he can convince NFL GMs that he knows his stuff.
"I can get up on the board and show them I can draw up anything versus a certain defense," he said. "Dial up a blitz and I can redirect a protection and pick it up. Anything I can do to show that I'm not just a good football player, but I'm mentally sound. I know the game inside and out and that I'm just a complete player."