April 17, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - At some point down the road, Andrew Maxwell's knee injury may be recalled as a blessing in disguise.
For the time being, the unintended consequence of practicing full-contact football in the spring is regarded as a tremendous opportunity for Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook to see the game through a whole new lens.
Nothing more, nothing less, but an eye-opening experience for the red-shirt-freshman-to-be from Cuyahoga Falls (Ohio) Walsh Jesuit High School, nevertheless.
Spartan coach Mark Dantonio revealed before Tuesday's practice that Maxwell, a junior who is projected to replace departed three-year starter Kirk Cousins, sprained his knee in Saturday's closed scrimmage.
Cook has been with the No. 1 offense ever since.
"If it had to happen, you'd rather have (Maxwell) do it than Connor," Dantonio said. "Connor needs the work. He's the true freshman. Andrew's been in the system for three years."
Welcome to advanced placement quarterbacking, Connor Cook.
"In the scrimmage on Saturday, I was working with the twos the whole time, and at the end, I took a couple snaps with the ones," he said Tuesday after drills. "And, I was working against the second-team defense the whole time until the end.
"You could really tell the difference between the No. 1 and the No. 2 defenses. The No. 1 defense is just so fast and so physical, and they have DBs (defensive backs) like Johnny Adams and safeties like Isaiah (Lewis), that are constantly moving and you don't know where they're going to line up or what they're going to do."
In other words, Cook is getting a real-time visual of what he could face in the season opener against Boise State - and in games that follow against the likes of Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan - should Maxwell have to come out because of an equipment malfunction or some other reason.
Although Maxwell's injury isn't considered serious, he could be held out of the remainder of spring practice as a precaution, Dantonio said. Had Maxwell stayed healthy, he would have gotten the vast majority of snaps between the first offensive and defensive units because with just eight career appearances, he too has to get ready for game action.
Cook wasn't expecting to get thrown into the deep end of the pool, but now that he's there, his choices are swim or sink.
"The reps I got today (with the first offense) were more than I've gotten all spring ball," he said. "It's very important (for me), just working as the No. 1 quarterback with the ones.
"You don't want to see any of your teammates go down, especially a guy like Andrew, but you've got to embrace it, put your best foot forward and just attack it. If I'd say there's one thing that can really prepare you for a game, it's working against our No. 1 defense. You saw last year how good our defense was, ranked with the top defenses in the country. Working against them will really make you better."
Spring practice opened with Dantonio emphasizing that no position was guaranteed, even the quarterback spot. The reality of the situation, however, suggested that Cook, who's last real game action came in a five-touchdown performance against Toledo Bowsher, would have to be some kind of phenom to unseat Maxwell, who completed 18-of-26 passes for 171 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in four games last season.
Cook's recent experience underscores the amount of preparation required to get a first-year player, even one ranked in the Top 10 nationally among drop-back passers as he was, ready to play football at this level.
The situation has quarterbacks coach Dave Warner lamenting the fact he probably won't be working as closely with Maxwell the next couple weeks, but welcoming the quality time he'll have with Cook.
"You don't like it for Andrew to be sitting on the sideline, but the positives are, first of all, it's nothing serious, and secondly, it gives Connor more reps under center," Warner said. "Connor certainly spent time during the winter in the film room trying to improve his knowledge of our offense. That's been obvious to me.
"But there's no substitute for being behind center as far as gaining that experience and learning our offense, especially when you've got to go against our defense. They throw a lot at you, and they're very talented."
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Cook's chances of pushing Maxwell during preseason camp in August could improve dramatically.
"He's got the tools and he's got the talent to play quarterback at a high level," Warner said. "For him, it's going to come down to the mental part of it, learning the offense and then being able to execute our offense in game situations against a Michigan, a Notre Dame, a Boise State in pressure situations.
"There's no way to fabricate that except in game conditions. If Connor Cook could take this experience and get to the point where he's competing for playing time with Andrew Maxwell, that would be an ideal situation because that would mean we have two very good quarterbacks in my mind."
Cook won't be coddled, according to offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, because the No. 1 defense also has things it has to accomplish before the offseason.
"I think we have to turn this into a plus," Roushar said. "Andrew is going to be sidelined for at least a week and possibly till the end, and as we look at it, Connor is going to get the opportunity to take every rep. I think only through repetition do you get better, so he'll learn every time he takes a snap..., and he's a quick study.
"Our defense does such a great job of applying so many different kinds of pressures, and they blitz from so many angles. They're working on all the different things they do, so (Cook) is seeing it from all the different angles. It's a great challenge for him, but it will only make him better as the game slows down for him."
Said Dantonio, "He's a freshman, but he's got a great arm, he's crisp, he's got good knowledge, has very good arm strength, can move around in the pocket and can run with it. There are very good things he does, but he just needs to get game and scrimmage experience. Every snap, regardless of what play is called, is going to be a little bit different."
Nobody knows Cook's assets and liabilities as well as he does.
"I'd say my strength is being athletic, being able to throw on the run and evacuate the pocket a little bit," he said. "Another strength would be my accuracy.
"The main thing I need to improve on is just recognizing what the defense is doing. Focus and preparation. You have to come out each and every day with an extreme amount of focus. It's got to be spot-on every single time, you've gotta be consistent and you've really just got to come out and know what you have to do and that's just a matter of being focused."
For the last five practices, including the annual spring game on April 28, Cook will be the Spartan impersonating a laser pointer.