MISSOULA — Northern Arizona senior Case Cookus helped generate quite the surprise for his father after the weekend of Nov. 4, 2017.
Cookus’ father, a fireman in Los Angeles County, saw his son when he walked into the station just days after the quarterback was ejected for targeting during a game in Missoula.
The only thing is, it wasn’t Cookus. It was an altered photo of him put there by some of the other firefighters in the station.
“He came into his office and there was a picture of me with a target on it,” Cookus said with a smile during the Big Sky Kickoff earlier this month in Spokane. “So, they were all laughing about that. He got a good laugh out of it. That’s pretty funny.”
Cookus is largely remembered around Missoula for that ejection, believed to be the first for a quarterback. Articles about the penalty appeared on national websites and still show up early in Google searches of his name.
With one season left and a new coach at the helm, Cookus hopes to ensure his legacy is more than the ejection and the season-ending injuries that have led to the former FCS freshman of the year, All-American and NFL prospect being a story of unfulfilled potential so far in an up-and-down career.
As for the ejection, Cookus has already moved on from that faux paus and can laugh about the embarrassing moment 20 months later. That’s partly because time heals all wounds and partly because he was relieved the player he targeted, linebacker James Banks, wasn’t injured.
“At the time, it wasn’t funny,” the 23-year-old Cookus said. “But it’s a story to tell now.”
On the busted trick play, Cookus pitched the ball to running back Corey Young, who pitched it to tight end Wallace Gonzalez on a reverse. Cookus went to block Banks and made helmet-to-helmet contact while leading with his shoulder.
Cookus thought the flag was for taunting Banks, and UM’s Connor Strahm patted him on the helmet during the review. When the call was upheld, an enraged Cookus was escorted from the field as snowflakes fell amid a blizzard of boos.
Cookus will watch the play occasionally. He’ll even show it to people if the topic arises or if it pops up on social media when he’s scrolling through his Twitter and Instagram feeds.
“Everyone has a different reaction,” Cookus said. “Some people go, ‘What, that was targeting?’ Other guys go, ‘Ooh, you got him pretty good.’ It’s just pretty funny.”
Cookus answers questions with a smile and some clichés but also with the poise expected of a savvy veteran player who’s entering his sixth collegiate season.
He looks the part of a potential NFL quarterback, standing at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, although he’s trying to get up to 225 by the start of the season.
Sitting to the left of sophomore defensive back Anthony Sweeney during media days, Cookus said he felt “absolutely” healthy after breaking the right collarbone on his throwing shoulder during the second game last season. He returned for grad school and played throughout spring camp under new head coach Chris Ball, taking precaution to avoid contact.
“I told him that our main goal is to keep you healthy this year and let you do your thing,” said Ball, who replaced longtime coach Jerome Souers, a former Montana assistant, taking the job partly because of the opportunity to work with a talented quarterback like Cookus.
Ball won’t be overhauling the offensive system that was run under Souers, aside from potentially running the ball more to take pressure off Cookus. The continuity of the system ups the possibility for Cookus and the offense to have success.
Expectations have been high for Cookus since his breakout freshman season in 2015. He threw for 3,111 yards, 37 touchdowns and five interceptions before a season-ending injury limited him to four games in 2016. The next season, he threw for 3,413 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions to lead Northern Arizona to the playoffs before the injury in 2018.
This spring, Cookus thought he didn’t feel back to 100% until the second week of camp after he spent a couple days in pads. As the spring progressed, Ball saw Cookus improving the arm strength, accuracy and smarts that helped him become a two-time first-team all-league player.
Sweeney touted his quarterback’s ability after having gone up against him in practices and scrimmages.
“He can make every pass in the book,” Sweeney offered. “Case will make you pay.”
Northern Arizona comes into the 2019 season predicted to finish sixth in the conference by both the media and coaches.
The Lumberjacks aren’t in the top tier of the conference. They’re in the middle of the pack, but with an experienced quarterback like Cookus, they have a chance to be in most games and potentially sneak into playoff contention. They’ll avoid UC Davis and Montana, opening league play at Montana State on Sept. 28 and later playing Weber State and Eastern Washington.
One question is if Cookus can return to form when the games count. Another is if he’ll have the weapons around him to replicate the past production. The latter will be made more difficult with the departure of wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, who’s now with the New Orleans Saints.
Cookus is ranked in the top five in NAU history for passing yards, TD passes and completions despite having two seasons cut short. This year, he hopes to again show his consistency, something he’s been able to do when healthy. In his career, he’s completed 63.3 percent of his passes and thrown 74 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions.
“I like to focus on high completion percentage, low turnover rate,” Cookus said. “I think those are things that I really focus on in my game. If that comes across and people remember me for that and just as a good quarterback, it’s something I really would love for people to remember me for.”
Individual stats are just one measuring stick for Cookus. There are also the team goals.
The Lumberjacks haven’t won a conference title in Cookus’ four seasons. They’ve made just one playoff appearance, a 41-10 blowout loss to non-scholarship San Diego in 2017. Their spot in that playoff bracket may have been impacted by the 17-15 loss to Montana in which Cookus was ejected during the first quarter for then-No. 9 NAU.
“Obviously, we have the goals of winning a Big Sky championship, going to the playoffs, making a run in the playoffs,” Cookus said. “But for me, it’s really focusing week by week, because when we do that and we win one game at a time, usually we’re in a good position to make a run at that championship at the end of the year.”
If Cookus and the Lumberjacks can do that, the boys at the fire station may need a new target to hang up.