NOTRE DAME — First it was — perhaps surprisingly — Connor Reilly.
Then came Devan Gardner, followed by Rob Henry.
Add Michigan State’s Connor Cook to a growing list of mobile quarterbacks Notre Dame has faced or will face this season. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio named Cook the full-time starter after Cook’s 202-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 55-17 win over Youngstown State on Saturday, Sept. 14.
The 6-foot-4, 218-pound redshirt sophomore is similar to Michigan’s Gardner in that he’s a big, strong quarterback who can throw on the run. Cook may not have the foot speed Gardner does, but he opens up several doors for a Michigan State team that scored only two offensive touchdowns (both rushing) in its first two games.
“What he does for them obviously is gives them the ability to run the quarterback and that has not been something that has been part of their offense in the past,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of Cook. “Now they have the ability to run some schemes in particular situations, down and distance, that force you to consider how you’re defending them.”
The threat of a mobile quarterback is nothing new to the Notre Dame defense, but learning to contain them is still a work in progress. Reilly and Gardner both led their teams in rushing, though the Irish held Purdue’s Henry to only two rushing yards last week.
Cornerback and team captain Bennett Jackson said he doesn’t pay much mind to a quarterback’s style. The only thing that changes for him is how long he has to cover his receiver.
Fellow cornerback KeiVarae Russell echoes that sentiment. He trusts what he calls “one of the top five front sevens” in college football to deal with a nimble quarterback.
“You just got to play your man,” Russell said. “Let the linemen, linebackers worry about this guy scrambling around. If we come out of coverage, we’re going to get destroyed.”
Russell paused for a beat before adding, as an afterthought: “At the end of the day, if he gets down field, it’s club and wrap. Club and wrap.”
Still, a quarterback that can roll out of the pocket and extend plays has been part of the problem in the Irish secondary, especially close to the end zone. A defense that allowed only 13 red zone touchdowns last year has allowed eight against its first three opponents.
If the Irish want to cool Cook’s momentum coming off a big performance against Youngstown State, they’ll have to bring a dose of what they used in the fourth quarter against Purdue.
Fine-tuning how they cover mobile quarterbacks is all part of the process, Jackson said. It’ll be a crucial fix, since Notre Dame’s schedule is proof that a dual-threat quarterback is becoming more of a necessity than a specialty.
“Last year, we were a different team,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about putting up a ‘W.’ If a team scores, they score. Obviously we don’t want them to, but it’s a work in progress. We have to continue to fix those mistakes, and we will and we have been.”