MISSOULA — The last time Case Cookus played at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, neither Northern Arizona nor the rest of the Big Sky Conference were yet aware of the elite talent under center for the Lumberjacks.
To that point, Cookus had a few solid performances under his belt in the first month of his freshman season — 267 yards and two touchdowns against Stephen F. Austin, 261 yards and three touchdowns against Division II New Mexico Highlands. But his meteoric rise to the top freshman in the FCS had not quite begun.
Cookus had thrown for 718 yards and six touchdowns in his first three career starts total when NAU opened up Big Sky play in Missoula in September of 2015. That sunny, 76-degree afternoon at Washington-Griz, Cookus looked anything but dominant as Tyrone Holmes ignited his Buck Buchanan Award campaign.
Holmes, the eventual FCS Defensive Player of the Year, sacked Cookus, the eventual FCS Freshman of the Year, four times that day. Montana’s defense piled up 12 tackles for loss, including eight sacks and forced two turnovers in limiting the Lumberjacks to 266 yards of total offense in a 23-14 Griz victory.
“I remember coming in with a new left tackle starting (redshirt freshman Cole Habbib) and with him coming it, it was our first starts for a league game,” Cookus said after NAU’s practice on Thursday night. “Montana’s fans really get into it. You are sitting there and you have kids from the age of four to 90-year-olds yelling at you, getting after. Overall, it’s a great atmosphere to play in but unfortunately that day we did not get the win.”
Cookus finished that afternoon 13-of-22 for 187 yards and two touchdowns to Emmanuel Butler, a second piece of foreshadowing of things to come. But Cookus looked pedestrian compared to what he would become later in his award-winning freshman season.
Two years later, Cookus will play the Griz for the second time in his career — he missed last year’s tilt in Flagstaff, along with most of the Big Sky slate, with an injury — as NAU shoots for its seventh straight win this season.
“That was Tyrone Holmes’ coming out party when we put a redshirt freshman out at tackle and it was a tough match up for us that day and we didn’t do a good job of helping him,” NAU head coach Jerome Souers said. “Holmes was a terror all day. I think that gave Case nightmares.
“A lot of water has run under the bridge and Case has experienced a whole bunch of different things. Having been in that environment will help him in regard to communication, which is the first challenge and dealing with a real active d-line, d-front. They do a great job of attacking the line of scrimmage and changing up looks behind. He’s going to have to be on his game.”
Cookus and the Lumberjacks come to Missoula on a six-game winning streak that includes a 5-0 mark in Big Sky Conference play. Cookus is throwing for 329 yards per game in first-year offensive coordinator Brian Shepherd’s scheme. He has thrown 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
“Their quarterback, he’s fun to watch,” Montana head coach Bob Stitt said. “Me being a quarterback guy, he’s so accurate and they do a really good job offensively of moving him around, a lot of RPOs and moving his launch points. They have some nice receivers. They do a nice job of running their stuff.”
From the Montana game forward in 2015, Cookus locked in with former offensive coordinator Tim Plough’s spread offense filled with run-pass option and West Coast elements.
Cookus threw four touchdowns the next week in a 49-41 win over No. 11 Montana State. Following the Montana game, Cookus threw for 2,206 yards (315 per game) and 30 touchdowns in NAU’s final seven games. The Lumberjacks won five of six before falling at Southern Utah 49-41 to give the Thunderbirds their first-ever Big Sky championship.
NAU finished 7-4, on the outside of the FCS playoff picture, but Cookus’ 37 to five touchdown-to-interception ratio turned heads round the league and the country.
“He’s an elite competitor,” Souers said. “Yeah, he can throw the ball. He has elite vision. Most of the time, he’s really, really accurate. But he’s so competitive.
The 6-foot-4 quarterback with a smooth release and a edge between the white lines seemed to have come out of nowhere. He landed at NAU when the man Souers and Plough initially recruited to run their new spread offensive attack suddenly spurned them.
In April of 2015, former University of Texas and University of Arizona quarterback Connor Brewer announced he would transfer to Northern Arizona. But when Greyson Lambert jumped ship from Virginia to Georgia, the Cavaliers had an ACC roster spot. In June, Brewer announced he would transfer to UVA, leaving Northern Arizona with a new offensive strategy and no one to run the attack.
Souers scrambled, calling up former Sacramento State head coach Steve Mooshagian who is now the head coach at Ventura (California) College, one of the top junior colleges in the Golden State. Mooshagian, the former Pitt offensive coordinator and former Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers coach, was the head coach at Sac State from 2003 to 2006. Mooshagian and Souers have known each other for years. Mooshagian told Souers he had a freshman quarterback grey shirting and his anticipated starter the following season.
Souers invited Cookus to NAU’s individual camp in the summer. Souers loved the 20-year-old’s personality, mechanics and coachable nature. Souers sold Cookus on Plough’s new offense and the way it would emphasize Cookus’ ability to manage a game and throw the ball down the field. After spending a few days in Flagstaff, Cookus committed.
“Coach Mooshagian didn’t want to lose the kid but he figured if he got the kid a D-I scholarship and the opportunity to play this soon, which is what we were looking for, it would work out,” Souers said in 2015.
NAU entered last season as the preseason Big Sky favorites. But Cookus went down with a fractured collarbone in Northern Arizona’s first conference game. The Lumberjacks stumbled to a 5-6 finish.
Cookus returned with a solid performance in NAU’s opener this fall, throwing for 306 yards against Arizona. In Big Sky play, Cookus is throwing for 345 yards per game. He has tossed 14 touchdowns and just one interception against league competition. He threw 205 consecutive passes without a pick.
“When you break your collarbone as a quarterback, the first thing you think is, ‘will I be able to throw the ball ever again? Will I have the same throwing motion?’” Cookus said in an interview earlier this season. “That stuff hits you hard early on. But then when you start training, you start doing all this stuff, you start to feel more and more confident because you keep getting stronger and stronger. Now I feel like my arm and my body is as strong as it’s ever been.
“What was harder for me was that edge I had,” Cookus said. “That extra little drive to direct the team, that was hard to get back. Then I got back in the swing, got a few touchdowns under my belt and now we are really clicking.”
Saturday’s showdown between Montana and Northern Arizona kicks off at 3:30 p.m.