'Unfinished business' pulls Connor Cook back to Michigan State

Michigan State's Connor Cook says he’s coming back for “unfinished business.”

There is plenty left for the Spartans quarterback to accomplish in his final year of eligibility.

Considered the conference’s top quarterback in September, Cook was largely overshadowed this season by the rise of J.T Barrett at Ohio State despite an impressive first full season as Michigan State’s starter. He’ll have a trio of Buckeyes quarterbacks to contend with again next fall, but likely a bigger chance to shine. That's at least part of the pull that helped him to decide to pass up a spot in the NFL draft for one more year in East Lansing.

Cook’s decision to return, which he confirmed Tuesday afternoon, provides an important anchor of consistency for a Michigan State offense that will lose a large portion of its production when the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic ends. Cook will be without his top target in the passing game and his top two running backs when the team reconvenes.

Two-thirds (43 out of 64) of the team’s touchdowns this season were scored by players who won’t be back next fall. Current sophomores like tight end Josiah Price and running back Delton Williams are able-bodied replacements, but the next edition of Michigan State’s offense will be highly dependent on Cook to make sure his younger teammates get up to speed.

Cook played an underrated role in one of the Big Ten’s biggest turnarounds during the 2014 season. He orchestrated an offense that increased its scoring average by two touchdowns from a season ago, jumping 56 spots, from No. 63 to No. 7, in the national rankings for points per game (43.1). With a defense that took a step backward from its previous dominant state, the Spartans wouldn’t have had another season with double-digit wins without that offensive improvement.

Cook’s 2,900 passing yards were the most of any quarterback in the conference, which is made more impressive when you consider he plays in an offense that still runs the ball far more frequently than it passes. He finished second to Barrett in the Big Ten in touchdown throws (22) and passer rating (152.4).

If not for Barrett’s sensational rookie season, Cook would have been a shoo-in for the Big Ten’s quarterback of the year and probably mentioned as a finalist for a couple of national awards. If not for Barrett’s sensational day against the Spartans in a 49-37 Buckeyes win, Cook and his team might have had an argument for a spot in the College Football Playoff. That brings us back to the “unfinished business.”

Cook knows he’ll need to be better next season to reach the goals he missed this year. He said he plans to improve his ability to run and use his running backs as safety valves in the passing game more often next season. He said he watches Aaron Rodgers from the Green Bay Packers and tries to emulate the Pro Bowler as much as possible.

“[I’m] not trying to be a dual-threat quarterback by any means, but if I have to get 4 or 5 yards just be more of a threat with my feet,” he said.

Catching Barrett (or whoever wins the Ohio State starting job) won’t be easy. The Buckeyes’ quarterback will be an early favorite for the conference’s individual accolades. Cook will have to make big strides to keep pace. More importantly, he’ll have to have an expanded role as a leader of the offense and Michigan State’s team if it is going to close the gap on Ohio State. That’s the unfinished business that cemented Cook’s return to East Lansing for a final season.