MSU LB Darien Harris defends QB Connor Cook


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook's evaluation as a draft prospect will include a close look not only at his physical skills but also into whether he's capable of being a locker room leader and a face-of-franchise player. An assortment of factors -- from MSU players choosing not to elect him captain, to questions about his love for the game, to his awkward television moment with Archie Griffin -- have put Cook in a challenging position entering the NFL Scouting Combine next month.

By the time Spartans linebacker Darien Harris was finished with the subject, however, Cook wasn't without a loud voice of support. While acknowledging the bias that comes with being a teammate, Harris went well beyond obligatory support in defending Cook's character.

"I don't buy any of that, one bit. I feel like, as he is my brother and he is family to me, it's kind of my obligation to try to kill some of that noise," Harris said. "Hopefully I can do that by getting people to understand from the inside of that locker room that we loved him and that he was the best quarterback in the country, no doubt about it.

"It's been a mystery to us, and it's really unfortunate. He's a great guy who comes from a great family. It's hurtful to me as well because he's part of our 2011 class that's been able to do so many special things at Michigan State. I know him, I know his parents well, his sister, I know everything about him. We talk all the time. For how close and tight-knit the team was, to me it's been kind of blasphemous, the amount of things that have been said about him."

There are perfunctory endorsements, and there are impassioned ones. This was the latter, and Harris didn't stop there. He also defended Cook specifically regarding a TV clip of Cook appearing brusque with Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner, in accepting the Big Ten Championship Game MVP trophy.

"He was caught in the moment. He whole-heartedly apologized. He understood how bad it looked. We didn't understand at first, then we saw the video and understood as well how bad it looked -- it looked pretty bad -- but he called him up personally, he apologized, and he didn't mean anything by it," Harris said. "I've known Connor for the last five years. He's humble. Not arrogant or cocky, he's extremely humble and blessed.

"I can't wait for him to get that (combine) opportunity. We know what the first questions are going to be, and he knows that. Once they see him face-to-face, once they hear his side of things, I think they will really change the opinion on him, and understand he is a franchise quarterback."

Harris, to be sure, won't be fueling the narrative on Cook when NFL scouts ask him about the quarterback in the coming months. He'll be trying to redefine it. And if other high-profile former Spartans like draft prospects Shilique Calhoun, Jack Allen, Jack Conklin and Aaron Burbridge do the same, the Spartans' locker room will be all but spoken for.

Here are eight other things we learned about the top quarterback prospects for the 2016 draft at the East-West Shrine Game practice week, plus some items from Thursday's practices:

2. Jared Goff vs. Paxton Lynch. UCLA LB Aaron Wallace is one of the few college defenders who faced both Memphis' Paxton Lynch and Cal's Jared Goff in his career. Pac-12 scheduling made the Goff matchup inevitable, but it took UCLA scheduling Memphis in 2014 to set up the Lynch battle.

"Lynch is such a big guy," Wallace said. "They were both great quarterbacks and both had a lot of presence in the pocket, but, the Memphis game was a lot closer."

The Bruins escaped Memphis, 42-35, in 2014 as Lynch threw for 305 yards without an interception. Last year, UCLA topped Cal, 40-24, in what was a strong performance for Goff, as well (32 of 53, 295 yards, three TDs).

3. Speaking of Goff ... Count Utah safety Tevin Carter as a Goff believer despite the disastrous night Goff had against the Utes in a 30-24 loss earlier this year. Utah intercepted Goff five times, but Carter merely chalked it up as an off day for a dynamic passer.

4. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: For all the concern about the junior's production and accuracy this year, along with how his poise and footwork have been affected by frequent sacks, Nittany Lions TE Kyle Carter believes Hackenberg's toughness is being overlooked.

"I'm pretty sure he got sacked more than any quarterback the last few years, and he stayed healthy," Carter said. "He stood through that the whole time."

So, does Carter think Hackenberg will develop into a franchise NFL quarterback?

"I know so," he added. "I've seen him produce at a high level multiple times. You've just got to get him in the right offense with the right guy, and you'll see it."

5. Give it to Lynch. South Florida DB Jamie Byrd called Lynch the best quarterback he saw in two seasons at USF.

6. Wentz Watch. The only East-West Shrine player to have faced North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz was Shrine West DE Tyrone Holmes, who played at Montana and against Wentz in 2015. Here was Holmes' assessment of one of the 2016 draft's elite prospects at the quarterback position: "He's tall, he's athletic, he can run, and he can make all the throws," Holmes said. "He's really tough to defend, because you can't just worry about him as a passer. He can run it. He's the best quarterback I saw in college, for sure."

7. Wait, what? South Carolina State DL Javon Hargrave, one of the top prospects practicing for the East-West Shrine Game, collected an incredible six sacks in a single game, as a junior against Bethune-Cookman.

8. Decompression. After some spirited hitting during the week, the East squad went through a lighter walk-through Thursday, but there was still some one-on-one drill work that had its moments. North Carolina State DB Juston Burris, for instance, with this alert pass breakup.

9. Injury update. Navy ATH Keenan Reynolds missed Thursday's practice with an undisclosed injury and it is unclear whether he will play in Saturday's game. Reynolds, who took part in the return game early in the week, ddid not participate in returns Wednesday. ... One of the game's top players, Utah State WR Hunter Sharp, won't play Saturday due to an injury, according to Shrine West coach June Jones.

*Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter **@ChaseGoodbread*.

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