For Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, watching the NFL draft brings its share of mixed emotions.
There’s pride when players that have been a big part of your program get selected, especially in the first round as the Spartans have had for three straight years after tackle Jack Conklin went No. 8 overall to the Titans on Thursday.
But there’s frustration when things don’t go the way you see it, when the winningest quarterback in program history falls from a potential first-round pick to the fourth round or an All-American goes undrafted.
“It was a little bit of a frustrating day for me watching our guys,” Dantonio said on Sunday, “because I felt like they were good players and you sit there and you say, ‘Well, I think he’s better than that guy, I think he’s better than that guy.’ But I’m not the NFL coach.
“I don’t have that opportunity to draft the guys. If I would, we’d have a bunch of Spartans playing someplace.”
While that’s not realistic, Michigan State did have five players taken over the course of the three-day draft. After Conklin, defensive end Shilique Calhoun went in the third round to Oakland and was joined by quarterback Connor Cook, who was taken in the fourth round by the Raiders.
Wide receiver Aaron Burbridge went in the sixth round to San Francisco and offensive lineman Donavon Clark was taken in the seventh round by San Diego.
But the big story, behind Conklin becoming the highest-drafted Spartan in the Dantonio era, was the fall of Cook. Projected to go anywhere from late in the first round to early in the second, Cook fell all the way to the second pick of the fourth round, and it appears most of it was over concerns about his character.
He wasn’t named a team captain last August, and the issue dogged him throughout the season and into the evaluation process over the last couple of months. It was a frustrating time for Dantonio.
“Yeah, I was disappointed,” Dantonio said. “I was probably living through the entire thing, as well, watched the entire draft. I was disappointed. I think that Connor is an excellent football player.
“He’s done a tremendous job for us here and for his football team, and a lot of that success that we’ve had can be credited to his play and his leadership on our football team. I think that speaks volumes.”
Cook’s resume is hard to question. He had a 34-5 record as Michigan State’s starter and has thrown for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in Spartans history. He also helped Michigan State win a pair of Big Ten championships as well as three bowl games while earning a spot in last season’s College Football Playoff.
But even Cook was tired of the constant questions, and by last week, he was ready for the process to end.
“I think it did wear on him as time went on, but he tried to continue to stay above it,” Dantonio said. “What I always tell people is when you hit adversity, it provides an opportunity for growth. You’re going to be tested. There’s no question you’re going to be tested as a quarterback at Michigan State on the field and off the field, just like the head coach, and I’ve always told our quarterbacks, you’re going to get a tremendous amount of praise and a tremendous amount of criticism because of the position that you play. It’s going to be highly scrutinized.
“We look forward to it as an opportunity to grow and become better for it. But I think that it was inaccurate, and it was disappointing what he had to go through.”
As for the other players drafted, Dantonio was beaming about Conklin’s first-round selection – “I’m very, very proud of him,” he said — and believes Calhoun will have the ability to play either defensive end or linebacker at the next level.
“He’s got the ability to drop (in coverage),” Dantonio said of Calhoun. “We messed around with it at times, but he’s such a good pass rusher. When you’re dropping a guy and he’s a great pass rusher, you sort of scratch your head a little bit. We kept him up there as much as possible, but he does have the ability to drop and run, but he’s very athletic, got great hips. You could see him having the opportunity to do that and be an either-or guy.”
Dantonio also believes Burbridge will fit in well to Chip Kelly’s offense with the 49ers and that Clark’s ability to play any position led to his somewhat surprising selection.
“He’s played left tackle for us, he’s played left guard, he’s played right guard, right tackle,” Dantonio said. “To find a little balance, he even played a little center in practice. So I think he’s a pretty versatile guy, he runs well, and he tested very well for them.”
Within hours after the draft, a large group of Michigan State’s undrafted players had already agreed to free agent deals.
Center Jack Allen (Saints), DL Lawrence Thomas (Jets), DL Joel Heath (Texans), CB Arjen Colquhoun (Cowboys), LB Darien Harris (Bengals), SN Taybor Pepper (Ravens), WR DeAnthony Arnett (Seahawks) and FB Trevon Pendleton (Ravens) all have announced where they’re headed while TE Paul Lang, WR Macgarrett Kings, WR AJ Troup and S RJ Williamson could also get mini-camp invitations.
The biggest surprise of the group was Allen, who had been projected as high as the third round. But at 6-foot-1 and just less than 300 pounds, his lack of size could have made some teams unsure. However, he’ll reunite with former MSU offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who coaches the offensive line in New Orleans.
“If I had to sit down and say one of the best 15 football players that we’ve had in the past 10 years or past nine years at Michigan State, Jack Allen would be included in that,” Dantonio said.
“He’s an outstanding football player and leader, extremely strong-minded, very gifted on the football field. He’s got great leverage.
“He’s got an opportunity to go to the Saints and play for Dan Roushar, who recruited him and now coaches the offensive line. I think that’s a good fit. In a lot of ways that’s the best place he could have went. I’m looking forward to watching Jack and his story in the NFL.”