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Senior Bowl a missed opportunity for QB Connor Cook

MOBILE, Ala. -- Though the Reese's Senior Bowl drew a strong contingent of quarterbacks this year, it could have been a bit stronger had Michigan State's Connor Cook accepted his invitation.

But his absence was more his loss than the game's.

The Spartans' three-year starter will instead show NFL coaches and scouts what he can do at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next month, but for a player whose leadership skills have been questioned, the Senior Bowl was a missed opportunity. Cook's decision to decline was not injury-related; Senior Bowl director Phil Savage told assembled NFL coaches and scouts Tuesday morning that Cook handled the decision the right way, giving plenty of notice and handling it with grace.

The Senior Bowl game will be played Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET and will air live exclusively on NFL Network.

"I think it was an ill-advised decision. This was a big opportunity that he kind of gave away here. When you look out here, to me, Carson Wentz is the class of the group, and he could have come out here and competed against him, try and size up and really help himself and show his competitiveness," NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "Now, there have been a lot of quarterbacks to not show up here. Where you feel you're slotted has something to do with that decision, and I don't know that he was slotted high enough as of this week to avoid it."

Despite being a third-year starter, Cook was not named a Spartans team captain before the season. The player-voted decision raised some eyebrows in the NFL scouting community, and Cook's snub of Ohio State legend Archie Griffin after the Big Ten title game fed into a negative narrative about Cook's character. Former MSU linebacker Darien Harrisvehemently defended Cook's character last week at the East-West Shrine Game, and on Wednesday, former Spartans teammate Aaron Burbridge did much the same.

"It would have been nice (if Cook had played), but that was his decision and I'm with him 100 percent," Burbridge said. "I definitely think it's overblown. A lot of people are just writing stories and don't even know him personally. I do know the man, so I'm like, 'Where are y'all getting this from?'"

Whatever notions NFL clubs have about Cook, he'll have to wait a few more weeks to clear them up face to face. NFL Media analysts Mike Mayock and Lance Zierlein viewed Cook's absence as a missed opportunity as well.

"If he wants to get ready for the draft his way, you have to respect that. But it would have been really good for him to come out and compete at this level. It was a well-rounded group of quarterbacks here this week," Zierlein said.

Here are some other things we learned at the Senior Bowl Thursday:

*2. Spence welcomes scrutiny.*Eastern Kentucky DENoah Spence has been one of the most talked-about prospects in Mobile this week and was highly disruptive as a pass rusher during Thursday's practice. Spence said all 32 NFL teams met with him this week and asked him extensively about the failed drug tests that resulted in his ban from the Big Ten Conference and, ultimately, his dismissal from Ohio State.

"Every night I was up until about 11:30 interviewing. But it's fine. It was a blessing to be here and get to explain what they wanted to know," Spence said. "I already knew those questions were coming, and how I was going to handle it. I just had to tell the truth and try to explain it. They got that stuff over with in the beginning (of the interview), then they got right into football."

3. Come again? UCLA kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn goes by a shortened name. Who can blame him? His full name is John Christian Ka'iminoeauloameka'ikeokekumupa'a Fairbairn.

4. Beefed up. Stanford OL Joshua Garnett, one of the draft's top guard prospects, said he once ate seven prime ribs of 18-22 ounces each to win the Lawry's Beef Bowl eating contest his freshman year. "The next day, I felt about how you would think I felt," he said.

5. Late additions. Illinois WR Geronimo Allison was added to the North squad after an impressive performance last week in the East-West Shrine Game, as well as Northwestern State WR Ed Eagan, and took part in their first practices Thursday. They replace injured receivers Leonte Carroo of Rutgers (ankle) and UMass WR Tajae Sharpe (quad).

6. Miller OK. Ohio State WR Braxton Miller, who has had a spectacular week by all accounts, didn't participate in the last part of Thursday's practice due to cramping in his right leg. Asked if it could affect his status for the game, Miller said, "We're balling."

7. Rankins not OK. Louisville DL Sheldon Rankins, who looked outstanding this week in practice, has withdrawn from the game with a knee sprain, along with another South squad defensive lineman, Maryland's Quinton Jefferson. South Carolina State's Javon Hargrave, who had an eye-opening practice week at the East-West Shrine Game last week, has been added to the roster.

8. Haeg on Wentz: North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz's blindside pass protector joined him at the Senior Bowl in NDSU left tackle Joe Haeg. So what does Harg see in one of the 2016 draft's most intriguing prospects? A quarterback with true command.

"He's commanding in the huddle. He doesn't get after us in a negative tone, but he'll push us to be our best," Haeh said. "And he got us out of trouble a lot. He knows when to switch protections if it's called the wrong way, based on what the defense is showing. And he's very quick. So basically, he's an O-lineman's best friend."

Haeg is questionable to play Saturday with a shoulder sprain.

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

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