Connor Cook: 'This year is totally different and I know I'm the guy, so I have to be a leader.' (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing -- Almost from the day Michigan State returned from winning the Rose Bowl, coach Mark Dantonio has preached one thing to his team -- they must be able to handle success.
The program has done that to some extent, following an 11-win season in 2010 with another one in 2011. But considering the Spartans won 13 games and finished last season ranked No. 3 in the nation, this success is on a bit of a different scale.
And if there is one player who might have to deal with it more than another, it is quarterback Connor Cook.
Not that he seems all that worried about it.
“I haven’t thought about it much,” Cook insisted. “I am just focused on football and trying to get better every day and not worry about stuff outside of football.”
A year ago there was plenty for him to worry about. He was in a four-person quarterback battle and was the backup for the opener. Cook was the starter by the second game, but frustration was more prevalent than success in the non-conference.
Then the Big Ten season hit and Cook took off. He finished with second-team All-Big Ten honors and was the MVP in the conference championship game and the Rose Bowl.
It has led to an entirely different approach to his junior season.
“Last year was hard grinding for a spot,” Cook said. “The main difference is last year I had to focus on myself winning the day and winning the position. This year is totally different and I know I’m the guy, so I have to be a leader. I want to keep getting better, but now I can focus on getting the team better, too.”
And as he gets better and the team gets better, the hype follows, as well.
With Braxton Miller out for the season at Ohio State, many believe Cook is now the best quarterback in the Big Ten. But instead of getting wrapped up in that debate, his coaches feel like Cook has the right mindset to deal with it.
“He’s very simple-minded that way,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “He really understands what it takes to play the position. In his mind, he looks at himself and sees how far he has to go. I think that’s a positive thing. He’s just not satisfied. He wants to continue to work and continue to improve at the craft of quarterback.”
There’s little debate Cook can be better, and as a result, the offense will be better. Few expect the slow start experienced last year, and much of that can be attributed to Cook’s command of the job and the confidence his coaches and teammates have in him.
He’ll also be surrounded by plenty of weapons from running back Jeremy Langford to a large stable of talented receivers and tight ends.
“Obviously Connor has proven that he can be the guy for us,” offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. “It’s good to have that confidence, not just for us as coaches but us as an offensive football team. His confidence breeds confidence into our offense. I think that is the biggest thing -- we know for the most part that Connor is going to be the guy.
“Let’s face it; he earned that by what he did last year on the football field. I think that permeates throughout our offense and gives us a lot for confidence in 2014.”
That confidence should go a long way in the Spartans handling success the way Dantonio hopes they can, and most of it starts with Cook.
Cook believes he and his teammates are already handling it, starting with off-season conditioning, spring practice and then into preseason camp.
“We just have to keep working hard and stay hungry,” Cook said. “Last year was a great year. That was last year. We want to make new memories this year. … We want to be greedy and demand more this year.”