The way Arkansas coaches and players talk about Kody Cook as they prepare for the Liberty Bowl serves as a forceful reminder of how far the Kansas State senior has come from his humble football beginnings.
Four years ago, Cook was a lightly recruited quarterback out of Louisburg. Two years ago, he was junior college receiver without a single scholarship offer from a major football program. Even K-State, the one team willing to take a chance on him, promised nothing beyond a spot on its roster as a walk-on.
Back then, few thought he was capable of playing quarterback or receiver at a high level. On Wednesday, his ability to rotate between positions at a moment’s notice made him the talk of the Liberty Bowl news conferences.
“He is a threat on the perimeter,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “You have to be aware of where he lines up at wide receiver, because he is one of their top targets, especially in the screen game and some intermediate routes. We also have to be aware of him as a thrower.
“When you get extra time in these bowl games, you see a lot of trick plays. He is a good runner, but he throws the ball better than I think most people give him credit for. … Our players have to keep a close eye on him wherever he lines up.”
Arkansas players were in agreement that Cook was the toughest player they will have to prepare for leading up to Saturday’s game.
They have good reason to think that way. The receiver/quarterback has done it all for the Wildcats this season, ranking second on the team in catches — 27 for 412 yards and three touchdowns — and completions — 18 of 42 for three touchdowns — as well as fourth in rushing — 213 yards and two scores on 55 carries.
He opened the season at receiver and stayed there as long as quarterback Joe Hubener was healthy enough to play. But when Hubener moved to the sideline, Cook stepped in admirably. So much so that co-offensive coordinator Dana Dimel says he may start at quarterback against Arkansas. The Wildcats have not named a top quarterback for the game.
“I just try to take it day by day and go step by step,” Cook said. “You can only control what you can control. I take my reps at quarterback and take my reps at receiver and try to do both full speed and to the best of my ability. Whoever’s name is called on Saturday, I will go to whatever position they ask.”
That uncertainty has created unrivaled attention for Cook, and he couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of a defense circling him on its scouting report at two different positions.
Not long ago, Cook struggled to convince a Division I football coach that he was good enough to play either position. If not for Tommy Mangino, then Hutchinson’s offensive coordinator, calling Dimel and telling him Manginohe had a versatile athlete who grew up a K-State fan who Dimel should look at, this wouldn’t have happened.
“It is pretty crazy,” Cook said. “To go into my last junior college game not knowing if it was going to be my last game as a college athlete or even get to play at this level and have it evolve into this is pretty cool. It’s something you can look back on and enjoy, for sure.”
Cook arrived at K-State expecting to play quarterback, but he quickly realized he was a step behind then-starter Jake Waters. He switched to receiver and made a name for himself there.
This season, he made the move back to quarterback and was named co-MVP of the offense by K-State’s coaching staff along with left tackle Cody Whitehair because of his versatility. He might not be as good as Whitehair, an all-conference selection and future pro, but he is arguably more indispensable. It’s difficult to imagine K-State playing in the Liberty Bowl without Cook.
He switched positions at a moment’s notice against Oklahoma State when Hubener was forced out of the game and other quarterbacks Jesse Ertz, Alex Delton and Jonathan Banks were all home with injuries. Cook, effectively the team’s fifth-string quarterback, engineered four touchdown drives in the first half and put the Wildcats in position to upset the Cowboys before losing in the final moments.
Then he took over for Hubener in the second half against West Virginia and led a previously listless offense to two touchdowns in a 24-23 come-from-behind victory that made K-State bowl eligible.
“The biggest thing about Kody is that he is a playmaker,” Dimel said. “He has that ‘it’ factor as a football player, whether it is at the wide receiver position or the quarterback position. He just makes plays for us, that is what we like most about him.”
“I really kind of expected this from Kody,” added co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Del Miller. “He is a gamer. He does some things in games he doesn’t necessarily show in practice, just because he is such a competitor.”
Ask Cook if he expected to play quarterback this season, and he shakes his head hard.
He didn’t envision this. But he wouldn’t change a thing.
“It gives me a lot of pride to know that I have to be that slash guy,” Cook said. “It puts pressure on you, but I like pressure. I like the opportunity it gives me to succeed.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett