MSU quarterback Connor Cook still hungry after feasting in 2013

Connor Cook passed for a career-high 322 yards and two touchdowns to beat Stanford and earn Rose Bowl offensive MVP honors.

Kirby Lee

EAST LANSING, Mich. — I’m having a hard time remembering an athlete more determined to avoid complacency than Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook.

He had a stunning, breakout year in 2013 despite beginning the season on the bench. First, he had to unseat starter Andrew Maxwell and then hold off highly-recruited freshman Damion Terry for the job. But he got better each week, and ended up throwing for 2,755 yards, 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

Big Ten coaches voted him second-team all-conference, and he was the MVP of the Big Ten championship game for leading the Spartans to 34 points and an upset of No. 2 Ohio State. But he wasn’t finished. Cook passed for a career-high 322 yards and two touchdowns to beat Stanford and earn Rose Bowl offensive MVP honors.

With practices for the 2014 season beginning Saturday, Cook made it clear he wants more.

"The offense made a really big jump last year," Cook said. "But we want to pick up from where we left off in Pasadena, and make another jump."

While the offensive line requires some re-tooling, MSU is loaded with returning talent at the skill positions. Tailback Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns, is a late-blooming fifth-year senior. Cook is a redshirt junior, and only one receiver who caught a pass last season is gone.

Cook wants to build an even better rapport with his targets.

"As a quarterback and a receiver — they have a relationship and each receiver is different," Cook said. "You have to get to know how each receiver comes out of their breaks, how they go up for balls and stuff like that. The main thing that you can do to get better as a quarterback and receiver is continue to work with each other. And if we continue to do that, the sky’s the limit for us."

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His top two targets last year were Tony Lippett (44 catches, 613 yards) and Macgarrett Kings Jr. (43 catches, 513 yards), who was suspended for spring football but has been participating in the team’s summer conditioning program. Senior Bennie Fowler had 36 catches for 622 yards and a team-high six touchdown receptions, and will be missed.

However, Cook likely will be adding tight end Josiah Price (6-foot-4, 244 pounds) to his go-to list. Price was his prime target in April’s spring game, catching five passes for 81 yards.

"I am extremely comfortable with him," Cook said. "I think you saw from the first pass that I threw to him (in that intrasquad game). I thought for sure I was overthrowing it, and then he reached up and somehow made a great play. But anytime you have a big body like that, who can go up and get it, who’s not afraid to go up and get it, it gives me more confidence myself to give him the ball."

Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has seen Cook grow as a passer and leader, and now would like him to improve as a runner. He rushed for 221 yards, but also lost 145 yards — mostly on sacks. That added up to a 1.1-yard rushing average with one touchdown.

"He’s a very confident player," Dantonio said. "I think he moves well with the ball. I think he’s got a big upside in terms of what he can do with the ball more than just throwing the ball, in terms of his scrambling ability."

Cook (6-4, 219 pounds) doesn’t lumber when he runs, but lacks the speed to be a true dual-threat quarterback. Still, Dantonio believes he can be more effective in leaving the pocket.

I asked Cook what fans will see from him and the Spartans, who open at home Aug. 29 with Jacksonville State in the first of a record five night games.

"Their burning desire to get better," Cook said. "I feel like everyone on our whole football team is just striving for greatness every day. You know for all the things we’ve accomplished, guys are more hungry. And that starts with the older guys, and the younger guys are following their lead.

"So, I think the biggest thing that you’re going to see is how some of the guys who red-shirted…You know, their burning desire to get out there and to play."

Cook said tailback Gerald Holmes, who red-shirted as a freshman after starring at Flint Carman-Ainsworth, particularly caught his eye in that respect.

Though, Cook tends to talk about 2014 with the enthusiasm of a player who has proven nothing. That "burning desire" starts at the top for the Spartans.