By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Tony Lippett claims Connor Cook makes everybody on Michigan State's offense better by the way he reads defenses, understands his receivers and throws the ball.
Au contraire, retorts Cook, respectfully disagreeing with the Spartans' acknowledged go-to receiver.
"I don't know about that," Cook said after practice Monday. "I know today, I had a really lousy ball. It was one-on-one coverage. Tony ran a fade (pattern) and Arjen (Colquhoun, junior cornerback) was right on him. I tried to throw a back-shoulder, and it was basically at Arjen's back.
"Then Tony went up, right over Arjen, and just plucked it off his back, so I would say he's making me better right there."
Rather than belaboring this polite debate, which MSU hopes continues throughout the season, it may be more instructive to illustrate how the Cook-led offense has evolved into the yard-chewing machine on display in preseason camp.
After the Spartans had to replace its entire receiving corps in 2012, dropped passes were a toxic additive to a formula that produced a 7-6 record. Last season, amid early desperate cries to start talented true freshman quarterback Damion Terry, the receivers shed the oven mitts as Cook blossomed under on-the-job training as a third-year sophomore.
Cook's back-to-back, season-ending 300-yard passing performances included a 25-yard, game-winning strike to Lippett against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
The trial-and-error phase that continued through winter conditioning, spring practice and summer workouts has transitioned into a polish-and-perfect stage that boasts three quarterbacks - third-year sophomore Tyler O'Connor is in a pitched battle with Terry for the No. 2 spot behind Cook - who are comfortable with the offense and a stable of a diversely talented and sure-handed receivers complementing a backfield that returns a 1,000-yard rusher.
"I can tell you the passing game is as strong as it's been since I've been here," said O'Connor. "We worked so much in the offseason. This summer, there wasn't a day when we weren't out there throwing out back. It's something that's grown tremendously and obviously paid off in the scrimmage and will continue to."
DeAnthony Arnett, the former transfer from Tennessee who took a rare mid-career redshirt last season, set the pace for the receivers on Saturday with eight catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns. Andre Sims Jr. had six for 132 and one touchdown, former walk-on Matt Macksood had four for 76 and a score, Lippett chipped in four for 67 and Keith Mumphery added two for 57 and one TD.
Aaron Burbridge, R.J. Shelton, A.J. Troup and Macgarrett Kings Jr., MSU's second-leading receiver behind Lippett last season, were absent from the stat sheet in name only as each has been showing well in camp. "We've been putting in a lot of work since getting back from the Rose Bowl to get our chemistry cohesive," Lippett said. "No matter if it's 7 o'clock at night, early in the morning, before or after lifting, we're always trying to get 3 percent better every day."
The mind-set is really no different than when the ability to complete passes, especially for big plays, was an area of major concern at this time last year.
"It's just something we've always embraced and just continue to do," Lippett said. "We're a confident group. We believe we can make plays, we believe in ourselves and the coaches believe in us. We're just trying to keep doing what's right for this team.
"(Cook) knows how we run our routes, he knows where we want the ball and he knows that if he chances it and just throws the ball out there, we'll do our best to try to go up and make the play. That's how our chemistry is. We're just feeling good with each other. He's making me and my fellow wideouts better because he's reading the defense more than we are."
Arnett is often characterized as a threat to rack up yardage after catching the ball in space, but he demonstrated the ability to go deep in the scrimmage. He also would have had more than 200 yards if a 40-yarder hadn't been nullified by a penalty.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Arnett said he's bigger, stronger and faster than he was while debuting at MSU with three catches for 69 yards in 2012. Arnett, who had 24 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns as a Volunteers' true freshman, is a living proof that there is no such thing as a quick fix.
"We really learned from that whole 2012 season," Arnett said. "At that time, we were all sophomores and still young. We got a chance to grow, and once we grew up we started to notice that we're really, really good.
"We knew we could dominate coming into the 2013 season and that's what we did. We believed in ourselves. It's not always about what other people think. As long as the coaches believe and as long as (wide receivers coach Terrence) Samuel and the guys in our room believe, we'll be OK."
The area once considered such a glaring weakness with largely the same cast of characters is "definitely a strength" going into '14, said Arnett. "We're all good, we're all trying to make plays and we're all trying to get on the field. The main thing is we're all pushing ourselves. I would say I'm very comfortable and just trying to get the opportunity."
Considering the way offenses have exploded in recent years with wide-open spread formations and fast-paced, no-huddle looks, the Big Ten record for total offense, set by Michigan State with 523.1 yards per game in 1978, may be the most underrated of all.
However, that mark, established with Eddie Smith at quarterback, Kirk Gibson and Eugene Byrd as wide receivers, Mark Brammer at tight end and Steve Smith at running back, may be in jeopardy.
"I can go on for days about this offense," Cook said. "We've got one of the best defenses in the Big Ten and the country and the best defensive coordinator (Pat Narduzzi) out there, so the success we've been having on our defense just shows us that the sky's the limit for our offense."
Cook said the Spartans should be able to keep defenses unsettled with remarkable balance that's enhanced even more by the rushing ability of tailback Jeremy Langford and a cadre of supporting ball-carriers, playmaking tight ends Josiah Price and Jamal Lyles and an experienced line.
"You look at the tight end spot, and we're deep," Cook said. "You look at the wide receiver spot, and we're deep, and right on down the line. You've got Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill, who can make plays on the ground, and anytime you have a good running game, that takes pressure off the quarterback, and when you have a good passing game, too, that just makes everything better."