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Cook, Raiders rookie quarterback, deserves a look

Amari Cooper: ‘You don’t want the leader of your offense to go down’

Amari Cooper reflects on quarterback Derek Carr, who was was injured on a play against the Colts Saturday.
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Amari Cooper reflects on quarterback Derek Carr, who was was injured on a play against the Colts Saturday.

In the aftermath of the wrenching loss of Derek Carr to a broken leg, the Raiders have rallied around the injured quarterback’s backup, Matt McGloin, as they should. And McGloin proved his capability after Carr went down last Saturday, squeezing in a late third-down pass to Amari Cooper to lock down the victory over the Indianapolis Colts. It was the biggest moment of McGloin’s four-year professional career.

There’s no doubt that McGloin is the team’s No. 1 quarterback. But it wouldn’t be a crime to think the guy right behind him on depth chart might be the more intriguing option for the Raiders as they finish the regular season Sunday in Denver and prepare for their first postseason since 2002.

Connor Cook hasn’t taken a professional snap, but the rookie out of Michigan State sure took a lot of big ones in college. In his three years as a starter in East Lansing, the Spartans went 34-5. Cook led them to five wins in seven games against top-10 teams. He beat undefeated Ohio State and undefeated Iowa in Big Ten title games. He led them into college football’s Final Four last year, where they got whacked by Alabama – but isn’t that the case with just about everybody who has played the Tide in the Nick Saban era? Cook beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl and Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. With Cook at quarterback, Michigan State finished third, tied for fifth and tied for sixth in the final AP polls. Without him this year, the Spartans went 3-9.

Cook set Michigan State career records with 71 touchdown passes (against 22 interceptions) and 9,194 passing yards. The latter number, by the way, exceeds the accumulation of notables such as Kirk Cousins, a former Michigan State thrower who starts for the Washington Redskins, and Paxton Lynch, the Broncos’ backup who starred at Memphis and is expected to get a little air time on Sunday against the Raiders. Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino as well as Sam Bradford and Donovan McNabb also rank below Cook among the all-time college passing leaders.

Brad Salem coached Cook and all other quarterbacks at Michigan State for the past four years. He called Cook “a fun guy to coach who really knew how to compete.” Cook longed for big games and big situations, and thrived in them, according to his position coach. Although he is in no position to make a recommendation to the Raiders, Salem can assure them that the guy they stashed on the inactive list all year “really knew how to compete” at Michigan State and has the physical ability to throw a game-winning touchdown pass late in a big game, not to mention the confidence in himself to make the delivery when circumstance are most dire.

“He never really was fazed in big moments,” Salem said in a phone interview. “He always had that even sense about him, the sense of confidence – he really didn’t let things shake him. There were moments here when we weren’t in good situations and he had to make big plays at the end of the game. Whether it was in a title game or things like that, I think he always responded on those moments.”

Maybe Cook’s biggest moments came in the Jan. 1, 2015, Cotton Bowl. With the Spartans down by 20 points in the fourth quarter, he completed 9 of 14 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner with 10 seconds left. He also ran the ball four times for 23 yards and picked up a couple of crucial first downs.

Before this year’s NFL draft, former Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden rated Cook as a potential first-round draft pick and a good bet to go no worse than No. 35 overall. At 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds, Cook had the size for the part. The experts said Cook could make all the throws, especially on the deep out and skinny post. They liked his size and courage to stand up to pressure. They wondered about his accuracy on shorter-range passes, however, a problem they attributed to his footwork.

On draft day, Cook fell to the fourth round. He was the 100th player and seventh quarterback taken behind Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett and Cody Kessler, but ahead of Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie sensation out of Mississippi State, who was selected 135th.

There had been some predraft reports about Cook having something of an arrogant attitude. Salem said he didn’t see it at Michigan State, and there haven’t been any whispers of such an issue in Oakland.

Most of Cook’s teammates on the Raiders are only now beginning to get a better handle on him, at least the ones on the first-team offense. This is the first week he’s gotten any reps with the regulars.

“First time I’ve ever heard Connor’s voice in the huddle,” left tackle Donald Penn told reporters the other day. “It’s good.”

Nobody in Raiderdom wants to see McGloin play poorly or get hurt, but if either circumstance does occur, it will be interesting to see how the new backup performs. It appears he’s ready.

“Oh, you bet,” said offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. “Yeah. He’s done a nice job of showing what he can do in practice. Definitely.”

The victory over the Colts "came with a setback" -- a serious injury to quarterback Derek Carr.

The left tackle says "I've never gotten a quarterback hurt in my whole career."

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo