Michigan State's Connor Cook focused on being sharper; BYU's Hill a natural leader
When Connor Cook watched tape of last season, he was his toughest critic. The Michigan State quarterback cringed this past off-season as he focused on the video cutups that showed his mistakes—the incompletions, the sacks and the interceptions.
They all stung, particularly those in the Spartans' two losses, to Oregon and Ohio State, the inaugural College Football Playoff's title game participants. “You don't even know all the f-bombs that were dropped watching myself," Cook says.
Cook will get a chance at redemption next Saturday when fifth-ranked Michigan State hosts the No. 7 Ducks, the season's first clash with major College Football Playoff implications. In Michigan State's 46–27 road loss to Oregon last year, Cook completed 29 of 47 passes for 343 yards and two touchdowns, but also tossed two interceptions, tying his season-high. Both led to Ducks touchdowns.
“It's extreme motivation," Cook says of last season's loss.
A second shot at Oregon is one of the many reasons Cook didn't leave early to enter the NFL draft after the Spartans went 11–2 last season and beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. The redshirt senior insists that he didn't really consider leaving, even though he received information that one NFL team had him as a late first-round pick and three others projected him as a second-rounder.
Cook came back for what Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio refers to as “finishing your circles." For Cook, that means first getting his communications degree, which he's on pace to do in December.
It also means trying to win another Big Ten championship (which he did in 2013), payback games against Oregon and the Buckeyes, and improving for the NFL, where he could be the top quarterback selected in April's NFL draft. In preparation, he focused this past off-season on improving his chemistry with the Spartans' skill players, extra time in the weight room and more film study with even harsher self-critique.
“I've upped the ante a little bit more this year," Cook says. “The thing I've been saying for this year is, No regrets. It's my last year. I want to do whatever I possibly can to be successful."
The chemistry component came through Cook's summer throwing sessions with his wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. That's after he threw over 1,000 passes in spring practice. His 6' 4", 220-pound frame is also more chiseled from increased strength training. But some of Cook's most significant improvement came through his film study.
“It's just amazing how much better I can be just watching last year," Cook says.
While Cook watched, he not only made his read progressions, but he also constantly questioned why he made certain passes. “You think you played awesome and you watch and, Oh, my God, why did I throw the ball here?" Cook says. “Or, I scrambled and didn't have my eyes downfield and the shot [was] wide open. Why didn't I have my eyes downfield?"
Cook's biggest regret after watching last season was not checking the ball down more often to running back Jeremy Langford, a fourth-round pick of the Chicago Bears in April's NFL draft. “I was so sick and disgusted," Cook says. “There were so many times when he was just wide open and all I had to do was throw the ball three yards to him."
Cook attributes his hesitance to check down to his running backs to his teammates—on the other side of the ball. Because Michigan State's defense is so sound, he's used to his tailbacks not being open in practice.
“It's a bad thing," Cook says with a laugh. “I'm trying to correct it."
With his grueling off-season behind him, Cook believes he's not just a better quarterback, but also a smarter one. He's more confident in his reads, at recognizing defenses and making the right decision.
“It's all about the work you put in," Cook says.
Cook is continuing his relentless film study this season. He just hopes he's not cursing about what he sees.
BYU's Taysom Hill continues to lead despite personal setback
On the plane ride home after BYU's stunning, last-second Hail Mary win at Nebraska on Saturday, Taysom Hill celebrated just as enthusiastically as his teammates. It didn't matter that the Cougars' star senior quarterback had fractured his right foot, his third season-ending injury in four years, or that his backup, Tanner Mangum, threw the game-winning 42-yard touchdown pass.
“He was so proud of what they'd done," BYU offensive coordinator and associate head coach Robert Anae says. “He wasn't feeling sorry for himself. As a leader, he didn't let down his guard. He encouraged the guys."
As the normally unflappable Anae recalled the scene on Sunday afternoon, he paused before finally muttering, “Oh, geez." The dual-threat Hill missed most of the 2012 season with a knee injury and the last eight games of last season with a leg fracture and major ligament damage.
On Saturday, Hill suffered his latest injury on a 21-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, but continued to play before leaving early in the fourth quarter. “I try to focus on what he did do," Anae says. “His impact on the team was unbelievable. We did not have the pieces intact when I first came back in 2013 and did not last year. This year, we have more of the pieces intact. To get us through having winning seasons and to keep BYU relevant, that was Taysom Hill."
Anae has a unique perspective on the Cougars and their quarterbacks. Besides being a starting offensive lineman on BYU's national title team in 1984, he also played with legendary Cougars quarterbacks Jim McMahon and Steve Young. This is Anae's second stint as a BYU assistant, and he has often mentioned Hill in the same breath as the dual-threat Young. The veteran coach says that it has been “refreshing" to coach Hill.
“It was so freaking awesome to design an offense around a kid that could stress a defense running the football," Anae says of Hill. “Opponents were manic in their preparation because of what the kid was capable of doing to you on the ground. That kind of stuff could just destroy a team. We'd rush the ball for 300-plus yards and that was just an average day."
With his injuries, Hill could petition the NCAA for a fifth year of eligibility and return for his senior year next season, but Anae is unsure if the 25-year-old quarterback will. “I think there's no doubt he'll play the game again," Anae says.
Anae is now tasked with molding Mangum, the polar opposite of Hill, and changing the offense's emphasis to the freshman's strength—throwing the football. A pocket passer, Mangum was the co-MVP in 2011 (with Jameis Winston) of the prestigious Elite 11 camp, an annual clinic for the nation's top high school quarterbacks.
When Winston was the first pick of April's NFL draft, Mangum was finishing up his two-year LDS mission in Chile.
“We'll start with stuff Tanner does well," Anae says. “Boy, he makes a really good first read. He can throw the length of the field. He makes all those hard throws from an arm standpoint."
Mangum proved that with his heroics on Saturday against the Cornhuskers. He'll have to keep them up with the Cougars' brutal next three games against Boise State, at UCLA and at Michigan.
And in the eyes of Anae, Mangum will be succeeding Hill, not replacing him. “What Taysom brought to our team," Anae says, “is irreplaceable."
After tough opening weekend, Pac-12 has time to rebound
After two weeks of college football last September, Big Ten cyber epitaphs were being tapped out from coast to coast. Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech at home. Oregon ran away from Michigan State in Eugene. LSU outslugged Wisconsin in a neutral site game. But in January, it was Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany who was beaming on the field after the Buckeyes won the national title. That followed impressive bowl victories by the Badgers and the Spartans over Auburn and Baylor. All the early epitaph's for the league ended up being a classic overreaction.
So after the Pac-12 fell flat on its face on opening weekend, it would be wise not to bury the league completely. Commissioner Larry Scott told SI.com in August at Pac-12 media day that last year's overreaction to the Big Ten's early struggles should provide a “cautionary tale."
He proved prescient, as the ugly losses of Washington State (Portland State), Colorado (Hawaii), Washington (Boise State) and Stanford (Northwestern) sent the Pac-12 sputtering out of the gate. Fifteenth-ranked Arizona's State's 38–17 loss to Texas A&M wasn't as bad as the score, but the game was still the only one for the league against the SEC this year, and the result will last. Arizona giving up 525 yards to Texas-San Antonio and losing star linebacker Scooby Wright for a month didn't help matters much.
Can the league rebound? Absolutely. The Sun Devils can win the South if they fix their offensive line issues. USC looked solid in blowing out Arkansas State. The Bruins' Josh Rosen had a dreamy debut (throwing for 351 yards and three touchdowns). Oregon looks as if it has seamlessly transitioned to the post Marcus Mariota era, scoring 61 points against Eastern Washington. Utah could be the best it has been since joining the Pac-12.
The best litmus test for the league this weekend will come in the state of Michigan. Oregon State plays in Ann Arbor, a game in which the Beavers should be competitive considering how impotent the Wolverines looked on offense against the Utes. (Did Brady Hoke forget to recruit offensive linemen?) The marquee game, of course, will be in East Lansing where the Ducks will play Michigan State on Saturday night. A sweep in the Great Lakes State will quickly help flip the narrative of Pac-12. That would, of course, create an overreaction to the opposite extreme.
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