Character, leadership and heart are the hardest parts to assess during any NFL draft evaluation because each is undefinable. One negative review or perception can quickly spiral out of control and eventually border on character assassination.
Anonymous scouts and draft analysts have questioned Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook about his leadership abilities and personality.
This happens every year to quarterback prospects since intangibles are as important as physical traits.
Even before Cook's senior season ended, he became a target. It started with the upperclassman not being named a team captain and continued into the 2015 campaign. The qualms about his personality only intensified once the predraft process was in full swing.
"Word here at the Senior Bowl: MSU teammates have been less than effusive in their praise of quarterback Connor Cook," DraftInsider.net's Tony Pauline reported.
Cook wasn't even in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl, because he continued to deal with a lingering shoulder injury. His decision not to participate only added to the growing noise, even though there has been nothing in his background to warrant red flags from NFL teams.
But who is Cook, really?
To better understand the Michigan State quarterback as a person and player, Bleacher Report contacted Spartans co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner.
Going into his 10th season in East Lansing, Michigan, Warner has coached two current NFL quarterbacks—Brian Hoyer and Kirk Cousins—both of whom are considered high-character individuals.
Before the 2013 campaign, head coach Mark Dantonio tabbed Warner as the team's primary play-caller. In those three seasons together, Cook completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 9,100 yards, 70 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. The team captured a pair of Big Ten championships and victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls, and Cook left MSU as the program's winningest quarterback.
Warner didn't shy away from any questions about his recent protege as a person or player.
Bleacher Report: The biggest question mark regarding Cook, which started last summer, centered on the fact he wasn’t named a captain entering his senior season. Why was that, and what leadership traits did you see those on the outside didn’t?
Dave Warner: We select captains via the unity council. It chooses 10 guys. Connor was selected for that honor. From the pool of 10 guys, we select three captains. As to why Connor wasn’t selected, the three guys who were selected ahead of him were outstanding leaders.
I felt Connor was also a good leader and the No. 4 guy if we had taken four captains. There were just a few guys in front of him who did a great job.
From that point and even before that, Connor served as a leader, whether he walked out to midfield before the game or not. He was a vocal leader and led by the way he played.
To directly answer your question why he wasn’t selected a captain: We had some guys in front of him that were darn good on offense from a leadership viewpoint. He would have been the next guy counted among the group.
B/R: When asked about his leadership, Cook said, "People can talk to the coaches." Did his teammates rally around him as a senior and the starting quarterback?
DW: Absolutely. Obviously, he started since his sophomore season. As a junior, he became a leader. Certainly, as a senior, he was the leader on offense. We had a couple of good offensive linemen to lead those guys up front, but after practice—more often than not—Connor Cook was in the middle of that huddle saying what needed to be said. He did a good job of it, and we, obviously, had a few good years.
B/R: The other side of this equation obviously points toward a knock on his overall attitude. I’m going to relay a couple of direct quotes about Cook from anonymous scouts that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Bob McGinn provided and to which you can respond…
"I don't know if his teammates really love him."
DW: Like all players on a team, he had guys who liked him, and there might have been some people who didn’t. I don’t know. On Saturdays, they all loved him and followed him.
Not everyone is going to be your best friend, but I certainly believe everyone respected him for who he was and his ability on the football field.
B/R: "It's all the other stuff. How much he really likes ball and how much he's going to work at it."
DW: Neither has ever been a question with him. We’ve had some good quarterbacks come through here in the last few years; Connor is right up there with Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer in regards to work ethic.
His day was filled with learning the offense, game-planning and studying defenses. I’m speaking mostly to this past year because he grew into this position. He certainly put in the time this year.
Football was very important to him. He decided to come back for his senior season when he didn’t have to because he wanted to improve, football was important to him and he left some things undone from his junior year.
Along with those other quarterbacks we’ve had here, Connor was as hard of a critic about his game as anybody. In practice, he was almost over the edge. He’d get pissed off, and we needed to calm him down after he made a throw that wasn’t as accurate as he wanted or missed the right read.
He was always very hard on himself and had high expectations of his performance.
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B/R: "He likes being a celebrity."
DW: I don’t know. I always thought he handled the media very well and gave credit to everyone throughout the football team. I don’t know what went on away from my eyesight, but I thought he was always a level-headed kid who didn’t try to keep the spotlight on him.
B/R: "He's not a high-football-IQ guy."
DW: His football IQ is very good. We run a pro-style offense here. We’re not a spread offense where we're throwing hot, changing protections and the read progression is fairly simple.
This is a complex offense. Not a lot of people come into our offense and learn it quickly. It takes time.
Connor grew in our offense. As he prepares for the draft, he’s a guy who already knows a lot of things as far as NFL concepts—pass-protection schemes, need to redirect and identify blitzes, and so forth.
From that standpoint, his experiences in our offense put him in a good situation. That’s how I’d address his football IQ.
B/R: You mentioned Cook really took everything to another level as a senior. Is this possibly where the misconceptions or even disconnect about his attitude and personality stem from?
DW: It could be. With a lot of guys, they get to their senior season and realize it’s their last shot. Connor kicked it into another gear and higher level as far as his work ethic. Maybe that became something others weren’t ready for after already establishing a preconceived notion. He’s certainly a person who stepped up in his vocal direction of the team and how he led from a work standpoint.
B/R: Your career at Michigan State spans 10 years. In said time, you have had the opportunity to see and work with Hoyer and Cousins. Could you explain the differences between Cook and those quarterbacks who preceded him?
DW: The biggest thing that stands out about all three—first and foremost—is I have the utmost respect for all three. They’re great people and competitors.
With Connor, he fell more into the gunslinger mode. If you look at it statistically, our running backs didn’t have a lot of catches. We don’t throw the bubbles, chokes or quick high-percentage passes as spread offenses do.
The majority of his throws were down the field. He didn’t drop the ball to the running backs. He threw down the seams, where he needed to throw receivers open and anticipate windows. He was very confident in his arm and being able to do so. It showed for three years.
Those other guys were a little bit more meticulous and not as risky with the throws and decisions they made.
That’s the main thing when differentiating between them. Connor will take some chances. More often than not, they paid off.
B/R: With a lot of quarterback prospects, there isn’t film that instantly translates to the next level. Cook’s film is one that does.
What were your expectations and responsibilities for him within the offense? You also expanded the shotgun package. Why were you comfortable doing so?
DW: First, he was a three-year starter. He already experienced two seasons and won a lot of football games. We’ve run the same offense—for the most part—for nine years. He had a great feel for it. Especially going into this past year, we had a lot of confidence in him—whether it was changing plays at the line of scrimmage from a run to pass play or vice versa. The same can be said of protections to get out of bad plays and protections. It became an experience factor, and we felt he could handle all of it.
He did some of those things previously, but we asked him to do a little more during his senior season. He did so without any problems.
B/R: How much actual freedom did he have within the scheme?
DW: With the confidence we had in him, we gave him plenty of free rein. It’s not that he changed plays often, but there were times sitting up in the box I thought to myself, "What the heck is he doing down there? Why is he changing the play?"
More often than not, it proved to be successful.
We gave him that freedom because of the knowledge of our offense. He usually did a great job communicating. Our only deal was he needed to have good reason to do what he was doing. If you change the play or primary receiver that might not be your first read, you needed to have a reason. He always did. That’s the confidence factor in him.
I don’t know if it's second nature or something a quarterback is born with, but it’s a great trait to have as they see the defenses and automatically know what the best option is.
B/R: Earlier, we discussed how Cook took more chances because of his gunslinger mentality. We saw a decrease in his completion perception each year during his three-year starting career. What was the reason behind this downward trend?
DW: It’s about where the ball is being thrown. We tried to emphasize getting the balls to the running backs and dropping it down a little more often than he did in previous years. It’s always easier said than done.
Kirk Cousins, for example, threw to the backs a little more. But when I watch him now, he’s a lot better at it. Why? Because he understands how quickly the ball must come out in the NFL.
We’ve had some really good offensive lines here, which provided Connor with the protection to make downfield reads and made him confident in those throws.
Even though our completion percentage wasn’t as high as we wanted, we’ve been very successful in the passing game. The percentage might not be there, but the overall success was.
B/R: Were being more patient in the pocket, maybe checking down to running backs and improved footwork areas where you stressed Cook could improve?
DW: There was always talk about his footwork, especially in 2013 and '14. I think he made improvement in that area. I haven’t seen any major issues within this past year.
As far as being more patient and trying to drop the ball down, it’s something we address with all of our quarterbacks. Again, the proof is in the result, and Connor had a lot of success throwing the ball down the field.
B/R: Last year, your offense went from Tony Lippett to Aaron Burbridge as the team’s top wide receiver. Tight end Josiah Price dealt with injuries. The offensive line was in flux throughout the season.
When it came to overall consistency from the quarterback position, did the surrounding cast play a factor?
DW: It could be.
One of the big spots we were banged up this year was along the offensive line. Some of our best offensive linemen missed two or three games. We were juggling the lineup up front through the first two-thirds of the season. Protection became an issue.
Meanwhile, we went through a period during the first half where we didn’t run the ball as we normally would because of the offensive line issues. As a result, we had to rely more on the pass game.
This is never good for a quarterback. At the same time, Connor handled it well and threw his way to a lot of victories.
B/R: With how the season ended in the Cotton Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide, where did the struggles commence during this contest, and how did Cook perform in your eyes?
DW: We have to start with our inability to run the football. We understood Alabama had a great defense, but we felt we still needed to run the football to control the clock a little bit. That’s one of our goals each and every week.
We weren’t able to do so.
I’m not sure we had a great plan. I’m not sure I did a good job putting together the game plan to allow us to be successful in the run game. So, I’ll take some blame for those issues.
As a result, I believe Connor put more pressure on himself. He threw the interception at the end of the first half just trying to make something happen.
Things fell apart from there.
Everybody got frustrated. It certainly was a cumulative effort with the problems among the offense. Did Connor play a good game? Nobody on offense played a good game.
I don’t know how much it had to do with his shoulder injury coming into the game. He said it wasn’t a problem, but I’m not 100 percent sure that’s true.
In the end, it’s the full body of work. He won 34 games over three years as the starting quarterback. That’s pretty darn good. We’re sure glad we had Connor for three years.
B/R: In the end, does it bother you how Cook has been portrayed in the media and throughout the NFL?
DW: I gave up trying to figure out the NFL draft years ago when Brian went undrafted and Kirk wasn’t selected until the fourth round.
I’m far from an expert on the drafting qualities necessary for the position, but I know from being around Connor all of these years he’s a quality person. Yes, he enjoyed college. So did I, for that matter.
When it comes down to football, he’s very serious, competitive and hardworking. I believe he has a good career in front of him, and whatever team ends up with him will be extremely happy.
All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.