Quarterback Connor Cook
Connor Cook might not be wearing White and Green anymore, but he's still getting advice from Brad Salem.
Salem – who is currently in his fourth season as the quarterbacks coach at Michigan State – played a key role in Cook's development during his career as a Spartan, and while the pair is now separated by 2,500 miles, Salem's guidance is never far from the eyes and ears of the rookie quarterback.
Heck, Cook is still on a text thread with Salem and the current Michigan State quarterbacks.
"We sort of never exempted him from our quarterback group chat," said Salem. "He didn't want to be deleted, so he still gets meeting times, and we hit each other back and forth with the other QBs. Me and him have been talking through the year, and just through the whole process of being in the NFL. He's saying he's enjoying himself and growing every day."
Now, less than nine months after being drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the fourth round (No. 100 overall) of the 2016 NFL Draft, Salem's star pupil will have to grow in a hurry, as Cook was just named the team's starting quarterback for their Wild Card matchup against the Houston Texans this Saturday.
The contest at NRG Stadium will not only be the Raiders first playoff game since 2002, but will also serve as Cook's first NFL start, making him the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first career start in the postseason.
Oh, and how could we forget; he'll be going up against the top-ranked defense in the NFL in defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's group.
No pressure, right?
"I'm just going to go out there and make plays for my teammates," Cook said. "I've never been the kind of rah-rah kind of guy. I'm going to be vocal inside the huddle. I'm going to communicate to my guys on the sideline and stuff like that, but I would always just go out there and try to make plays and let the play speak for itself."
Cook ended his collegiate career not only as the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history, but was also the recipient of a litany of awards to boot. He was the 2015 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Winner, the 2015 Big Ten Quarterback of the Year, and earned 2015 First-Team All-Big Ten Honors as well.
During his years as a Spartan, Cook made a name for himself by showing up in big games, making tough throws in high-pressure situations, and Salem believes that familiarity with the national stage will lend itself favorably to No. 8 once he steps on the field in the hostile environment of NRG Stadium.
"I think he's been prepared for moments like this because of his experience and his accomplishments in college," Salem explained. "He's the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history, and played in really, really big games, as far as Big 10 Championship Games, and the Rose Bowl, and Cotton Bowl, and those types of things. Obviously, nothing gets bigger than the NFL playoffs, but I know he's probably very excited for the moment, and he's going to do everything in his power to prepare himself so he can be successful and the Raiders can be successful."
After watching his entire collegiate career unfold firsthand, this year Salem has had to watch Cook's season from afar. The rigors and responsibilities of his own job, as well as his geographical location, have forced Cook's former quarterbacks coach to watch the Raiders signal-caller's development from a different vantage point in 2016; Salem has relied heavily on highlight shows and social media to watch Cook's performances since joining the Silver and Black.
Fun fact, he didn't even get to see Cook's first – and so far only – touchdown pass live, he had to watch the clip later that day on Twitter.
Location aside, there aren't many people more familiar with the rookie quarterback's game than Salem, and a breakdown of Cook's skillset sounds very familiar to another Raiders quarterback, but one who wears No. 4, not No. 8, on his jersey.
"I think he has the confidence and trust in his guys to make plays," Salem said. "I think that was something at times, you're kind of like, 'I can't believe he just threw that,' and then he does, and it's a touchdown. He has a great confidence about him, and I think he just really enjoys when it's game time. He's extremely competitive."
That description sure sounds like something we've heard about Derek Carr time and time again, doesn't it?
I don't think there's any assumption that Cook is going to be the reincarnation of Carr – the former is making his first NFL start Saturday, and the latter is a legitimate MVP candidate this season – but in taking a closer look at Cook, the rookie does boast some similarities to the Raiders Pro Bowl quarterback.
Salem said that Cook has shared that Carr has done a "great job" of teaching him the NFL game, and that both he and Matt McGloin have provided a strong quarterbacks room for the rookie to develop in, which as Salem is quick to note, isn't always how things play out in the NFL.
"They've been in the league," Salem said of Carr and McGloin. "They've been through it, just teaching him the system, and NFL defenses, and just timing, and just fundamental stuff. I think they've been – from my perspective – what he's said is they've been very good to him. It's a very good room to be in which that's not always the case."
Before each of Cook's starts at Michigan State, Salem made sure to stop him in warmups to remind him to "take a moment to look around," and while Cook won't have his college quarterbacks coach in his ear Saturday afternoon, that doesn't mean he can escape some advice from his old mentor.
"You just have to relax," Salem said. "You just have to be you. You have to compete and just trust what you see, and have full confidence in the game plan, and have full confidence that you know, and trust yourself, and what to do."
And hopefully, if all goes well for Cook and the Raiders in Houston, there will be no shortage of congratulatory texts in the group thread to respond to postgame.